Austin visits Afghanistan amid unknowns regarding US troop withdrawal

By Baber Khan Sahel

Kabul, Mar 21 (efe-epa).- US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday emphasized the need to reach a “just and lasting” peace in Afghanistan during a surprise visit to the Central Asian nation during which he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani a little more than a month before Washington’s deadline for withdrawing its troops from the country.

The US has agreed to withdraw its forces before May 1, the accord coming as part of the historic agreement reached in Doha in February 2020, and Austin’s visit takes on special relevance because of the doubts expressed recently by President Joe Biden about whether the deadline will be met.

This is Austin’s first visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, and it comes as part of an international tour on which he has visited Japan, South Korea and India.

Austin said on Twitter that he was very pleased to meet with Ghani, adding that he had gone to Afghanistan to listen and learn. He went on to say that the visit was of great help to him and would inform his participation in the review the US, including President Biden, is undertaking of Washington’s policy in the region.

According to a statement released by the Afghan Presidential Palace, Austin “expressed his concern over the increase in armed violence” in the country and “hailed” the sacrifices made by Kabul’s armed forces.

Among the commitments made by the Taliban in the Doha agreement, besides guaranteeing that Afghan territory will not take in foreign terrorists or serve as a base from which to carry out attacks on other countries, is to reduce the level of violence.

However, in recent months Afghanistan has experienced an increase in fighting and a wave of targeted killings of journalists, activists, politicians and intellectuals. The Kabul government blames the Taliban for the violence, although the insurgents have repeatedly denied participating in the murder of civilians.

Biden said last Wednesday in an interview with ABC that the withdrawal agreed to by his predecessor, Donald Trump, could be postponed depending on whether or not the Taliban have adhered to their Doha commitments.

The May 1 deadline could be met but it will be difficult to do so, said Biden, adding that the agreement was not negotiated in a very firm way.

When Trump signed the Doha document there were just 12,000 US troops in Afghanistan, a significant reduction from the 100,000 that had been there in 2011.

Currently, there are about 2,500 US troops and 1,000 Special Forces troops in the country.

The US in recent weeks, along with other nations, including neighboring countries, its diplomatic efforts to move the blocked intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar forward.

Since the talks got under way last September, the Afghan and Taliban delegations have made only scanty progress and have only managed to agree on the rules for the negotiations.

One of the international efforts to try and get the talks moving again took place last Thursday in Moscow in the presence of Afghan government and Taliban representatives, when Russia, the US, China and Pakistan all supported accelerating “without delay” the intra-Afghan peace dialogue.

A second international meeting was announced for April in Istanbul, also with the aim of giving a push to the intra-Afghan talks.

Amid these international initiatives and the unexpected unknowns regarding the US withdrawal, the Taliban last Friday said in Moscow that they will consider the agreement with Washington null and void if the US does not carry out its side of the accord.

The insurgent group said Sunday in a communique that the Doha agreement with the US resolved the foreign element of the conflict, and it warned that international pressure to accelerate a peaceful solution could lead to the failure of the intra-Afghan talks.

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