KABUL: United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during an unannounced visit to Kabul on Sunday, just weeks before Washington is due to withdraw the last of its troops under a deal struck with the Taliban last year.
Austin said on Twitter he had come to “listen and learn”, on his first trip to Afghanistan since his appointment.
“This visit has been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review (of Afghan peace process) we are undergoing here (with President Joe Biden),” he added.
After talks with President Ghani, Austin would not be drawn for comment on the May 1 deadline for the pullout of US troops.
“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.”
The US defence secretary and his entourage flew into Afghanistan on a US-liveried aircraft instead of a military plane that usually carries US officials to the country. Details of his visit were kept under wraps for security reason until after he left.
According to the Washington Post, which was among the small group of US media travelling with him, Austin said senior US officials wanted to see a responsible end to the conflict and a transition to “something else”.
“There’s 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 is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war,” Austin said.
According to a statement released by the Presidential Palace in Kabul, both sides condemned the increase in violence in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the May 1 deadline.
President Biden said last week that it would be tough for the US to meet the deadline to withdraw troops from the war-torn country. But he said that if the deadline, which was laid out in an agreement between former president Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban, is extended, it wouldn’t be by a lot longer.
In response, the Taliban on Friday warned of consequences if the US didn’t meet the deadline. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters that if US troops stayed beyond May 1, it would be a kind of violation of the agreement.
“That violation would not be from our side… Their violation will have a reaction,” he added.
Washington is reviewing the agreement with Taliban and has been stepping up pressure on both the insurgents and the Afghan government to find a swift route to a peace agreement.
In a sharply worded letter to President Ghani earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was urgent to make peace in Afghanistan and all options remained on the table. He also warned that it was likely the Taliban would make swift territorial gains if the US and Nato troops withdrew.
Washington has also given both the Taliban and the Afghan government an eight-page peace proposal, which both sides are reviewing. It calls for an interim so-called peace government which would shepherd Afghanistan towards constitutional reform and elections.
But Mr Ghani has resisted an interim administration, causing his critics to accuse him of clinging to power. He says elections alone would be acceptable to bring a change of government.
Both the US and Kabul, meanwhile, have called for a reduction in violence leading to a ceasefire. The Taliban say a ceasefire would be part of the peace negotiations. However, despite a general increase in attacks in Afghanistan, the insurgent movement has not attacked US or Nato troops since signing the agreement.
But US military commanders and Nato leaders have argued that the Taliban have not lived up to their part of the peace agreement, which includes a reduction in violence and a separation from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance would only leave when the time was right and when conditions had been met.
“The main issue is that Taliban have to reduce violence, Taliban have to negotiate in good faith and Taliban have to stop supporting international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda,” he said.
Austin’s visit to Afghanistan marks his first return to a US warzone in the Middle East since taking the Pentagon post. But he spent a great deal of time in the region during his service as an army commander. Austin, a retired four-star general, served in Afghanistan as commander of the 10th Mountain Division. And from 2013-2016 he was the head of US Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.