Defense Chief Visits Afghanistan as Troop Deadline Nears

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and said the country’s violence remains high as President Joe Biden weighs the future of the U.S. troop presence.

Biden’s under pressure to decide whether to abide by an Afghan peace deal reached during Donald Trump’s final year that seeks to bring home the 2,500 U.S. troops now stationed there by May 1. It’s a deadline -- now just six weeks away -- that Biden has said “could happen” but would be “tough” to meet.

“It is obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Austin told reporters traveling with him. “We’d really like to see that violence come down. If it does come down it can begin to set the condition for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

Defense Chief Visits Afghanistan as Troop Deadline Nears

Austin stopped in Kabul on Sunday for talks including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and General Austin S. Miller, commander of NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. The mission, which succeeded an international force first deployed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., numbers 9,600 troops.

Austin last month pledged a “thoughtful and deliberate” review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, saying there would be “no surprises” for the Afghan government or U.S. allies with troops in the country. Biden told ABC News last week he’s consulting with allies on the drawdown’s pace.

“I’m in the process of making that decision now, as to when they’ll leave,” Biden said. “That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president -- the former president -- worked out.”

Taliban Compliance

Last year’s deal provided the opportunity to wind down the U.S. role on conditions that violence declined, the Taliban pledged to bar terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State from operating in the country, and that the government and the Taliban entered into productive peace talks.

That process dragged out, but the Trump administration stuck with it. The Taliban, on the cusp of seeing foreign forces finally depart, largely held off on attacking Americans.

Even so, violence has climbed since peace talks started in September, including the targeted killings of journalists, civil-society members and politicians. In 2020, 8,820 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded, according to the United Nations.

The Afghan official in charge of conducting peace talks with the Taliban said the U.S.-backed government in Kabul are ready to discuss power-sharing with the Islamic movement.

“The idea of power-sharing, we agree that we will discuss it,” Abdullah Abdullah, a former Ghani rival who heads the government-appointed High Council for National Reconciliation, said in an interview in Moscow on Friday. “The percentage, the structure of power-sharing, this we will discuss with the Taliban.”

Blinken’s ‘Urgency’

A cease-fire should also be agreed, he said.

Ghani has reacted coolly to U.S. proposals for an interim administration of national unity, saying elections are the only way to transfer power.

Previous peace efforts held in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban insurgents and Ghani’s government have made little headway. The two sides, for example, needed months to agree on a basic outline of the talks.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter to Ghani that even with continued U.S. financial aid, “the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains” if the U.S. withdraws and no agreement is reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“I am making this clear to you so that you understand the urgency of my tone regarding the collective work outlined in this letter,” he said.

Austin’s stop in Afghanistan was part of a trip that also took him to Japan, South Korea and India.

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