US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in an unannounced visit to Kabul yesterday, as Washington reviews the peace process there and its planned troop withdrawal.
Austin said on Twitter that he had come to “listen and learn”, on his first trip to Afghanistan since his appointment.
“This visit been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing here with (US President Joe Biden),” he added.
The meeting comes at a crucial time for the Afghan peace process ahead of a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops agreed by the insurgent Taliban and the administration of previous US president Donald Trump.
Biden told ABC News on Wednesday that the deadline would be tough to meet and that his administration is consulting with allies and in the process of making a decision.
The United States 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.
Negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Qatar’s capital Doha have struggled to gain momentum and violence has risen.
Last week Moscow hosted a gathering of stakeholders in a bid to break the deadlock, but even that ended without any concrete proposals.
An even broader conference is now scheduled to be hosted by Turkey next month.
The US, Russia and other stakeholders want to see some form of transitional government take power in Afghanistan, but Ghani has insisted leaders can only be chosen at the ballot box.
Having made enormous gains on the battleground, the Taliban appear to have little to gain from either strategy.
Taliban co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar told the Moscow conference that Afghans “should be left to decide their own fate”.
The Taliban said on Friday that they would like to see the peace process sped up, but warned Washington against keeping troops in Afghanistan beyond their agreed withdrawal date.
Afghanistan’s presidential palace said yesterday that Austin and Ghani discussed the peace process and concerns over rising violence.
The Afghan government is keen to keep US forces in the country for as long as possible for the vital air cover that they provide.
After talks with President Ashraf Ghani yesterday, Austin would not be drawn for comment on the deadline.
“That’s the domain of my boss,” he told reporters. “That’s the ... decision that the President (Biden) will make at some point in time, in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward.”
Under the deal thrashed out between the Taliban and Washington, the insurgents pledged to engage in peace talks with Afghan government negotiators, but they have made almost no progress and fighting has only worsened – particularly in rural areas.
Major urban centres are also in the grip of a bloody terror campaign in the form of attacks targeting politicians, civil servants, academics, rights activists and journalists.
Kabul was the last stop on a whirlwind tour of Asia for the new Pentagon chief, a former career soldier who served in Afghanistan as a division commander from September 2003 until August 2005.
Austin and his entourage flew into Afghanistan on a US-liveried aircraft instead of a military plane that usually carries US officials to the war-torn country.
Details of his visit were kept under wraps for security reasons until after he left.
Asked about the Taliban warning that Washington would face consequences if the deadline wasn’t met, Austin said that he is sure US forces could cope.
“I have great confidence and in his ability to protect our troops,” said Austin, referring to General Austin Miller, commander of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in Afghanistan.
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