US Defence Secretary makes unannounced visit to Afghanistan as troop withdrawal deadline looms

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David Millward
·2 min read
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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin - Brendan Smialowski/AFP
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin - Brendan Smialowski/AFP

The US defence secretary touched down in Kabul on Sunday in a surprise visit amid uncertainty around the May 1 deadline for the total withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Lloyd Austin a retired army general, said the Biden administration wanted to see “a responsible end to this conflict” and “a transition to something else.”

The May deadline for the withdrawal of US troops was set under a deal negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration last year as part of its drive to reduce American commitments in the region.

More than 2,300 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda.

Mr Biden has warned that meeting the May 1 deadline could be "tough", indicating that forces could remain - albeit only for a short time.

Afghanistan territories vs troops
Afghanistan territories vs troops

However, the Taliban has warned that there could be a "reaction" if the agreement is not honoured.

At the height of the conflict, the US had more than 100,000 troops in the country. However, the number has dwindled to around 3,500 - about 1,000 fewer than a congressional study suggested was needed to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government.

Peace talks in Doha have stalled, leaving the Biden administration facing a dilemma of whether to press ahead with the withdrawal by the end of next month although it could leave the Afghan government vulnerable to another Taliban surge.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last month sought to put pressure on the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, by warning it could face a Taliban offensive on its own if it did not fall into line with US peace plans.

Washington's proposals, contained in an eight-page document, include establishing an interim government that would include members of the Taliban.

Last Friday Turkey announced its willingness to hold a peace summit next month with Mr Ghani promising to attend on condition that Hibatullah Akhundzada, Taliban's leader, also does so.