U.S. defense chief visits Afghanistan as troop deadline looms

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday as the Biden administration continues to grapple with a timeline for bringing troops home from America’s longest war.

Austin visited the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul before meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other top officials at the presidential palace. The defense chief spent roughly seven hours in the capital, and is the first member of President Biden’s Cabinet to visit the country.

His visit comes as the administration faces a deadline of May 1 to withdraw all U.S. and NATO troops from the country under an agreement the Trump administration struck with the Taliban in February 2020. 

In an interview with ABC News last week, Mr. Biden said it would be “tough” to comply with the deadline. At a stop in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, Austin said that “to my knowledge, the president has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he’ll decide to remove the troops.” There are currently about 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban called for the group to reduce violence and separate itself from terror groups. U.S. and NATO military leaders have said the violence is still too high to justify a full withdrawal.

Two of the top commanders in the region told the Los Angeles Times that conditions on the ground in Afghanistan may not warrant complying with the May 1 deadline. Representative Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently echoed that argument, saying the U.S. is “not going to be out by May 1 — I think that’s highly unlikely under these circumstances.”  

The Biden administration has proposed a series of steps for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, according to a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani obtained earlier this month by TOLO News. In the letter, Blinken said the administration continues to consider the withdrawal of all troops by the deadline.  

During his campaign for president, Mr. Biden said he would bring U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan in his first term and advocated for leaving a residual force to combat terrorism. 

“We should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for … ISIS or al Qaeda to reestablish a foothold there, to be able to go from Afghanistan to the United States to attack the United States,” Mr. Biden told “Face the Nation” in February 2020. 

Sunday marks Austin’s first visit to a war zone as the leader of the Department of Defense, but he has been to Afghanistan many times. He served in the 10th Mountain Division there, and from 2013 to 2016 he led U.S. Central Command, whose responsibilities include Afghanistan. 

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