KABUL—U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed in Afghanistan Sunday for an unannounced, daylong visit, the first senior-level trip here by the new administration as President Joe Biden faces a May deadline to decide whether to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from the country.
Austin, who oversaw the large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 as an Army general, visited Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace and spoke with top U.S. military officials, which the Pentagon chief said was a listening visit that would inform the administration’s ongoing review of Afghan policy.
“What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict,” Austin told reporters at NATO military headquarters in Kabul. “There’s a lot of energy focused on doing what’s necessary to bring a responsible end to this conflict.”
The visit comes amid concern by some top U.S. military and Afghan officials that a snap American pullout could lead to a repeat of the Obama administration’s departure from Iraq. U.S. and Afghan officials worry that the Taliban will retake much of Afghanistan and turn back the clock on human rights that have progressed during nearly two decades of American troop presence.
In any event, the Biden administration faces a logistical headache if it seeks to remove the 2,500 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan by the negotiating deadline set by the Taliban of May 1. While Austin and other officials have stressed that Biden has not made a decision about whether to stay or go, NBC News reported this week that the administration appears to be targeting November for further drawdowns. The Taliban’s fighting season typically begins in the summer, another factor that could weigh on the decision.
“I would tell you that there’s probably nobody who understands the physics of removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin told reporters in New Delhi ahead of traveling to Kabul, insisting that the United States would keep open “as many options as we can.” Biden already hinted that the May 1 deadline could be tough to meet, suggesting he had been left a weak hand by former President Donald Trump, who negotiated the withdrawal with the Taliban last year.
“That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out,” Biden told ABC News.
Soon after the meeting with Ghani, Afghan outlet TOLO News first reported on the visit, which had been previously kept secret for security reasons. The visit came on the Nowruz holiday, which a U.S. official said is typically a time of ramped-up security concern, as the Islamic State has attacked celebrations for the Persian New Year in the past.
The Biden administration is facing pushback from U.S. military and Afghan officials over a hurried withdrawal, just like the Trump administration, which withdrew 2,000 troops in its last days in office.
“To me it’s dumb as hell, it’s the worst thing we could do,” a former senior administration official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They’re going to start executing people in soccer stadiums and all of that crap.”
Many experts argue more U.S. troops—closer to the 4,500 that were there last year—could allow the United States to train Afghan troops, continue the counterterrorism fight against al Qaeda, and secure the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The former senior administration official said that the higher number would allow for a footprint in the southern and eastern part of the country and the major cities of Jalalabad and Kabul. The United States could further reduce exposure by mostly using the remaining troops in a training role, the official said.
Another factor in the ongoing deliberations is the Taliban’s continued refusal to reduce violence, a key condition of the peace deal last year. The Taliban demand the withdrawal of all U.S. troops as a condition of the deal; the United States wants to see violence decline first. Austin acknowledged to reporters Sunday that it was “obvious” the level of violence in the country remained “pretty high.”
“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 said.
A senior Afghan diplomat said that multiple fissures exist in the Taliban movement, complicating talks and possible reconciliation with the Kabul government, especially among those who have refused to break ties with al Qaeda despite demands from the U.S. and Afghan governments. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, called for the United States to avoid deadlines and a possible interim government.
Despite the Trump administration’s last-minute pull out, the American troop withdrawal may have proceeded more slowly than publicly acknowledged. The New York Times reported last week that as many as 3,000 U.S. troops remain in the country. The senior Afghan diplomat said that officials in Kabul are in the dark about how many U.S. forces and contractors are at Bagram Airfield and other U.S. installations.
For the Biden administration, the decision about what to do in Afghanistan is inevitably colored by what happened in Iraq, where the Islamic State erupted after the U.S. withdrawal.
“I know people get tired of warfare,” the former senior administration official said. “[But] in five years everyone is going to be writing papers about watching the Taliban take back over.”