KABUL: US defence secretary Lloyd Austin landed in Afghanistan’s capital on Sunday morning, becoming the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to set foot in the country that is home to America’s longest war. The US is tentatively set to withdraw American forces from the country on May 1, the date set in an agreement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban more than a year ago.
Speaking to reporters before his departure from Afghanistan, Austin declined to comment on whether the Taliban had met their obligations under that agreement, which would trigger the departure of US forces. “It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Austin said. “We’d really like to see that violence come down, and I think if it does come down it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.” Austin demurred on the idea of setting a different departure date for US forces, saying that Biden would make that decision. “What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict,” he added in his remarks before leaving for the previously unannounced visit. Austin said on Twitter he had come to “listen and learn”.
Afghanistan’s presidential palace said on Sunday that Austin and Ghani discussed the peace process and concerns over rising violence.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has also been travelling in the region in recent weeks with proposals including an interim Afghan government and a summit in Turkey to jumpstart the peace process. The Taliban said on Friday they would like to see the process sped up but warned Washington against keeping troops in Afghanistan beyond their agreed withdrawal date.
Biden said in an interview this past week that meeting the deadline would be “tough.” On Saturday, speaking with reporters in India, Austin expressed confidence that he could remove all remaining US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, should the president direct him to do so. The defence secretary’s visit to Afghanistan came at the end of more than a week of travel across the Pacific during which he reassured allies that they would have the United States’ support in countering potential threats from China.