Pentagon chief lands in Afghanistan ahead of troop withdrawal deadline


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and met with President Ashraf Ghani, as the deadline to withdraw troops from the country nears.

“I’m very grateful for my time with President @ashrafghani today. I came to Afghanistan to listen and learn. This visit has been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing here with @POTUS,” Austin tweeted on Sunday.

Austin and Ghani discussed peace in the country and concerns over the escalation of violence, the Afghan president’s office tweeted on Sunday.

Austin’s first trip to Afghanistan comes at a critical time for the administration, with the May 1 deadline to withdraw all troops from the country less than two months away. On Wednesday, however, President Biden weighed in on the deadline, calling it “tough.”

“It could happen, but it is tough,” Biden said in an interview, adding that he doesn’t see it taking “a lot longer.”

“I’m in the process of making that decision now, as to when they’ll leave. The fact is that, that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president worked out. And so we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government and that decision, it’s in process now.”

Biden said that one of the “drawbacks” for his administration was the “failure to have an orderly transition from the Trump presidency to my presidency,” which he said cost him “time and consequences.”

Biden officials have previously said that one area where the incoming administration was not receiving answers was on Afghanistan.

As of January, the U.S. had about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

The deadline to withdraw troops was set by a July 2019 agreement with the Taliban negotiated by the Trump administration, which calls for all remaining U.S. troops to be removed from the country by May, if the Taliban maintains its commitments, such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

U.S. officials, however, have frequently said the Taliban has not yet upheld its end of the deal.

Experts have warned that a complete U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan without a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government could spark a flood of violence in Afghanistan, including a possible collapse of the government.

As the deadline nears and the administration considers withdrawing troops, the Biden administration has been working to re-launch talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has made trips to Afghanistan in recent weeks, armed with proposals, including the creation of an interim government and a summit in Turkey to reignite the peace talks, Reuters reported.

The Taliban on Friday said they would like to see the process speed up, but warned Washington against keeping troops in Afghanistan past the agreed withdrawal date, Reuters reported.

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