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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, meets Afgan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul.
Image: Presidential Palace/AP/picture alliance

US defense chief makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

March 22, 2021

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made an unannounced visit to Kabul amid a looming deadline for Washington's final troop withdrawal from the country. He discussed the spike in violence there with President Ghani.


US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday weeks ahead of Washington's final troop pullback, scheduled under a deal reached with the Taliban last year.

The Pentagon chief held talks with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior officials in Kabul.

According to the Afghan presidential palace, the two sides condemned the increase in violence in the war-battered country and stressed on the need for a durable and just peace process to address the current situation there. 

"It's obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country," Austin said. "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, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work."

Austin, who was touring Asia this week, arrived in Afghanistan after visiting Japan, South Korea and India.

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No discussion on troop withdrawal

The defense secretary's Kabul visit comes shortly after US President Joe Biden said last week that the May 1 deadline for troop withdrawal, agreed by his predecessor Donald Trump, would be "tough" to meet.

Reacting to Biden's remarks, the Taliban warned Washington of "consequences" if US soldiers were to stay beyond the deadline. 

"It will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side. ... Their violation will have a reaction,'' Suhail Shaheen from the Taliban negotiation team told reporters on Friday. 

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Last year, the Trump administration and the Taliban had reached a deal in Doha, Qatar, wherein the US vowed to call back all US and international forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban, in exchange, promised to cut ties with terrorist groups like the al-Qaida and sit at the table for the intra-Afghan peace talks. 

President Biden's administration, however, is reassessing the troop pullback. 

There was no mention of the May 1 limit during Sunday's talks and while speaking to reporters later  Austin refused to comment on the issue. 

"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."

Austin, a retired four-star general, was deployed in Afghanistan as commander of the 10th Mountain Division.

He was also at the helm of the US Central Command from 2013 to 2016.

dvv/sri (AFP, AP, dpa)