KABUL — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin touched down in Afghanistan on Sunday, making an unannounced visit as the Biden administration wrestles with how to end its role in a war that is nearly 20 years old without allowing security to disintegrate.
Austin told reporters traveling with him in Kabul that senior U.S. officials want to see “a responsible end to this 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.
Separately, the defense secretary told a group of service members in Kabul that being deployed is “clearly not easy,” but that the mission is important.
“Continue to take care of each other and focus on the task at hand,” Austin told them.
The trip marks the first visit by the new administration to Afghanistan and comes ahead of a May 1 deadline to remove all U.S. troops that was set in an agreement signed with the Taliban last year. About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon, with several hundred more deployed on a short-term basis.
Austin’s visit comes after Turkey announced Friday that it will host a peace summit in April that was requested by the Biden administration in an effort to jump-start negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Ghani said he will attend if Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s top leader, also does.
At the height of the war in 2010, the United States had more than 100,000 troops spread across the country, many in combat daily. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and many thousand more Afghans have.
The present situation has left the Biden administration picking from challenging options.
While the deal the Trump administration negotiated last year called for the complete removal of U.S. troops this spring, it did not require the Taliban to reach a peace accord with the Afghan government first.
The Taliban, driven from power by the United States in a war launched after al-Qaeda’s September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, has mostly held fire on Americans since then as a part of the deal. But it has waged a bloody campaign of violence on U.S.-trained Afghan troops, killing scores each month and encircling some Afghan cities. It also did not break with al-Qaeda, another term in the deal, according to U.S. analysts and intelligence assessments.
Biden has raised the prospect of staying in small numbers, at least for a while longer. In an interview with ABC News last week, the president said a full withdrawal by May “is tough,” and he was “in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave.”
Biden administration officials, including Austin, have declined to elaborate on the options that Biden is considering. Austin, in a news conference with reporters in India on Saturday, said he was “aware of various speculation” prompted by an NBC News report last week that Biden has decided to keep troops in Afghanistan through November, but said no decision has been made.
The timing, along with the continued Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and challenges of moving military equipment from a landlocked country with no ports, has raised questions about whether the United States has reached a window of time in which it is no longer feasible for all U.S. troops to leave by May 1 in an orderly fashion.
The Taliban warned on Friday that if the United States does not meet the deadline, there will be a “reaction.”
Austin said the United States is “mindful of the timelines and the requirements that the Taliban has kind of laid out.” He then shifted to note his experience leading the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 at the direction of the Obama administration.
“I would just tell you that there’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with moving troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin said. “And I think that as we work through this process, we’ll keep all those things in mind, and we’ll keep as many options open as we can. Whatever the decision is that the president makes, you know, you can trust that it will be fully supportable.”
What that might yield is unclear. Taliban officials have expressed interest in taking over the country’s government again, raising concerns over whether advances in women’s rights and democracy will last.
Politically, the question remains fraught. During the presidential campaign, Biden vowed to end “forever wars.” Still, some in his party appear torn over how rapidly U.S. forces should exit.
“It is time for it to come to an end,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” emphasizing his opposition to another long-term military commitment in Afghanistan. “At this point,” Durbin added, “I see no end in sight for our presence there. I want to make sure there is a safe exit of our troops; we try to keep the environment as stable as possible, but, as far as engaging in an Afghanistan war for another decade, I’m opposed.”
Speaking on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a combat veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said her thoughts were with the military personnel who remain in harm’s way but that the prudent course is to allow Austin time to make a recommendation with input from U.S. commanders and allies in theater.
“I want American troops to come home,” Duckworth said, “but I also want to fight the bad guys over there instead of allowing them to come here.”
Top of mind among senior U.S. military officials is the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq a decade ago. That operation was completed on deadline, but it was carried out after the Obama administration weighed keeping thousands of service members there as a residual force. Less than three years after the departure, the Islamic State swept across Iraq from Syria, prompting the U.S. military to return.
A senior Afghan official, Shahmahmood Miakhel, said in an interview on Sunday that Afghan officials hope to “reach an understanding in the peace process, to have a cease fire and not need to use U.S. air support.”
“Afghan forces have the capability to support their own operations and U.S. forces mostly target international terrorist groups who operate under the umbrella of the Taliban in different parts of the country,” he said.
The official, who was just appointed Afghanistan’s ambassador to Qatar, said Afghan forces, especially commandos, are trained to be less dependent upon air support. U.S. forces, he said, “may have freedom to use their air support against counterterrorism operations in the country.”
Rahmatullah Andar, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security council, refused to address recent comments from the Biden administration on the withdrawal timeline of U.S. forces and continued air support. But he did express frustration that despite a deal being reached with the Taliban and the United States last year, violence across the country continues.
“After the Doha peace deal, foreigners are safe, but Afghans are being killed. The brunt of the violence is on the Afghan people and security forces,” he said.
Austin, who visited Ghani at the presidential palace, said he did not convey a message to the president and wanted to hear what Ghani’s concerns are. Austin declined to say whether he thinks the Taliban has met the terms of its deal with the United States.
Susannah George in Kabul and Drew Harwell in Washington contributed to this report.