Austin declined to say whether the Taliban would meet the terms of the February 2020 agreement negotiated by the previous administration, but insisted that he wanted to see “a responsible end to the conflict.”
“There will always be concerns about things one way or another, but I think a lot of energy is being put into doing what is necessary to reach a responsible ending, a negotiated solution to the war,” he said.
While the Pentagon insists that all options are still on the table, meeting the deadline seems less and less feasible with approaching May 1st. Biden himself said a full US withdrawal by that date would be “difficult”.
And top generals have signaled their concerns about an early exit in the past few days. If American withdrawal moves ahead before diplomatic efforts can lead to an agreement, fighting across the country will intensify and Ghani’s government could lose its fragile hold in key areas, General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said this week.
“If we pull out and an agreement is not reached with the Taliban, the Afghan government will likely be in a very tough battle to retain ownership of urban population centers,” warned McKenzie.
If the Taliban and the Afghan government fail to reach an agreement by May 1, Biden could temporarily hold the U.S. forces in place. But that decision would likely cause the Taliban to repeat attacks on American troops – attacks that have largely been halted since the February 2020 accord. Indeed, on Friday the Taliban warned Washington not to oppose the May 1 deadline.
However, Austin said he was “confident” that General Scott Miller, chief of the US armed forces in Afghanistan, could protect his troops from renewed attacks.
“It is the right of every commanding officer to defend his troops,” Austin said. “There is no question that General Miller is more than equipped … to do that.”
While in Kabul, Austin met Miller and Ross Wilson, the Chargé d’Affaires.
Local news outlets reported on Austin’s visit a few hours after he landed, but reporters traveling with Austin were told to postpone the publication of the news until after he left as Islamic State terrorists threatened Afghan New Year celebrations, one said US official.
While Biden is considering a full exit, the Taliban continue to attack Afghan civilians and security forces.
When asked about his concerns about increased attacks on Afghan forces, Austin said, “We have done a lot to work with the Afghan security forces and I don’t want to speculate on what might happen.”
“We will continue to work on the processes we are involved in and hopefully we will reach a point where we have a responsible transition to something else,” he said.
According to two defense officials familiar with the discussions, the Pentagon has presented the president with options ranging from a planned exit by May 1 to an indefinite maintenance of the current troop level.
Leaving by May 1 would be difficult but doable, one of the officials said. The US maintains nearly 3,500 soldiers on site, about 1,000 more than previously announced. This includes special operating personnel who have been removed from the books, a common practice. The New York Times announced the higher number first.
At a press conference in New Delhi prior to the visit, Austin insisted that a May 1 withdrawal could still take place.
“There is probably no one who understands the physics involved in removing troops and equipment better than I do,” Austin said, referring to his time overseeing the decline of Iraq. “Regardless of what decision the president makes, you can be confident that it will be fully supported.”
Defense officials said the Taliban are failing to meet terms set out in the agreement to end supporting terrorist groups, halt attacks on Afghan national security forces and make progress on a power-sharing deal with the Afghan government.
With no reconciliation between the two parties or a commitment to allow the US to maintain some counter-terrorism options in the country, officials suspect the Taliban “will return to attack us,” one official said.
“We’re fine” at the current level, said the person. “The question is what now?”