Pentagon chief makes surprise stop in Afghanistan as generals warn of premature drawdown

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, his first as Pentagon chief, as top generals warn that the country could fall into chaos if U.S. troops withdraw before diplomatic efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government to end the conflict yield results.

President Joe Biden is still weighing a decision on whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, the deadline stipulated by an agreement he inherited from the Trump administration. But violence in the country remains too high, Austin told reporters after meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country, we’d really like to see that violence come down,” Austin said. “If it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

Austin declined to say whether the Taliban are meeting the conditions of the February 2020 agreement negotiated by the previous administration, but stressed that he wants to see “a responsible end to the conflict.”

“There is 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’s necessary to bring about a responsible end, a negotiated settlement to the war,” he said.

While the Pentagon insists that all options are still on the table, meeting the deadline seems increasingly less feasible as May 1 gets closer. Biden himself said a complete U.S. withdrawal by that date would be “tough.”

And top generals have in recent days signaled their concerns about a premature exit. If the American pullout goes ahead before diplomatic efforts can yield a deal, fighting will intensify across the country and Ghani’s government could lose its fragile hold on key areas, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said this week,

“If we withdraw and no deal was made with the Taliban, I think the government of Afghanistan is going to be in for a very stiff fight to retain possession” of urban population centers, McKenzie warned.

If the Taliban and the Afghan government do not reach a deal by May 1, Biden could choose to keep U.S. forces in place temporarily. But that decision would likely prompt the Taliban to renew attacks on American troops — attacks that have mostly halted since the February 2020 agreement. Indeed, the Taliban on Friday warned Washington against defying the May 1 deadline.

However, Austin said he is “confident” in the ability of Gen. Scott Miller, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to defend his troops from renewed attacks.

“It’s the right of every commander to defend his troops,” Austin said. “There is no question that Gen. Miller is more than equipped … to accomplish that.”

During the stop in Kabul, Austin met with Miller and Ross Wilson, the chargé d’affaires.

Local news outlets reported Austin’s visit a few hours after he landed, but reporters traveling with Austin were told to hold off publishing the news until after his departure due to threats from Islamic State terrorists surrounding Afghan New Year celebrations, according to a U.S. official.

As Biden weighs a full exit, the Taliban continue to attack Afghan civilians and security forces.

Asked about his concerns regarding increased attacks on Afghan forces, Austin said “we’ve done a lot to work with the Afghan Security Forces and I don’t want to speculate on what could happen.”

“We will continue to work the processes that we are involved in and hopefully we will get to a point where we have a responsible transition to something else,” he said.

The Pentagon has presented the president options ranging from leaving by May 1 as planned to maintaining current troop levels indefinitely, according to two defense officials familiar with the discussions.

Leaving by May 1 would be difficult but doable, one of the officials said. The U.S. maintains just under 3,500 troops on the ground, about 1,000 more than was previously disclosed, the person said. This includes special operations personnel who were put “off the books,” a common practice. The New York Times first disclosed the higher number.

In a press briefing in New Delhi ahead of the visit, Austin insisted that a May 1 withdrawal could still happen.

“There’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin said, referring to his time overseeing the Iraq drawdown. “Whatever decision the president makes, you can trust it will be fully supported.”

Defense officials have said the Taliban are not meeting the conditions laid out in the agreement to end support to terrorist groups, stop attacking Afghan national security forces and make progress on a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

Absent some reconciliation between the two parties or a commitment allowing the U.S. to keep some counterterrorism capabilities in the country, officials suspect eventually the Taliban “will turn back to attacking us,” one of the officials said.

“We are OK” at current levels, the person said. “The question is, now what?”

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