WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan Sunday ahead of a coming deadline for President Biden to draw down U.S. troops in America’s longest war.
The Pentagon said Mr. Austin met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with U.S. military and diplomatic leaders in the country as part of the visit, the first by a top Biden administration official and amid the latest efforts by the U.S. and international powers to end the two-decade war.
U.S. officials haven’t said whether they will meet a May 1 deadline for departing Afghanistan, set under the Trump administration as part of talks with leaders of the insurgent Taliban movement. But Biden administration officials have indicated repeatedly that removing troops by then will be difficult, given the levels of continued violence.
The U.S. is part of a multi-prong international effort seeking to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist groups, drug smuggling or other forms of instability to the region.
The future of the Afghan conflict also will be a key subject for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later this week at a meeting in Brussels of foreign ministers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.
“We went in together. We will adjust together as we have over the years. And when the time is right, we will leave together,” Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters last week.
America’s Longest War
The talks about the long-running Afghanistan war are the latest foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration. Mr. Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan clashed with Chinese counterparts over a range of issues during meetings last week in Alaska.
Earlier last week, Russia recalled its U.S. ambassador in a signal of unhappiness over critical remarks by Mr. Biden and the release of a U.S. intelligence assessment blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for seeking to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.
During a previously scheduled Afghan peace conference hosted by Moscow last week, four nations—including the U.S., China, Russia and Pakistan—called on the Taliban to reduce violence and begin talks for a power-sharing deal with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, led by Mr. Ghani.
In addition, the Ghani government has agreed to attend a U.S.-proposed international peace conference in Istanbul next month that will include Taliban representatives. Those talks are aimed at carving out a power-sharing government between the Taliban and Kabul.
“There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there is a lot of energy focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war,” Mr. Austin told reporters traveling with him before arriving Sunday in Kabul.
There are at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 6,500 NATO troops, and those allies have said they would depend on U.S. logistical support to withdraw troops.
The Trump administration last year agreed to draw down the remaining American troops in Afghanistan by May 1 as part of a deal with the Taliban. But amid fears that the withdrawal could lead to rising violence and the restoration of an Islamic emirate under the Taliban, the Biden administration has said it hasn’t made any final decision on withdrawing troops.
In an interview last week with ABC News, Mr. Biden hinted that the U.S. and allied troops could stay. Asked whether the withdrawal would take place, Mr. Biden said, “It could happen, but it is tough.” He added that if the withdrawal deadline is extended, it won’t be by “a lot longer.”
The unannounced stop in Afghanistan marked the end of Mr. Austin’s first international trip as defense chief, which included stops in Japan, South Korea and India.
While in New Delhi, Mr. Austin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, in a bid to deepen defense ties between the two countries, in a bid to counter a more aggressive China.
The two countries signed agreements to allow sharing of encrypted military intelligence and geospatial data, and using each other’s bases for security forces to replenish materiel and fuel.
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