KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III landed in the Afghan capital on Sunday morning and became the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to set foot in the country where America’s longest-running war resides.
The United States will temporarily withdraw US forces from the country on May 1, the date set in an agreement signed more than a year ago by the Trump administration and the Taliban.
In his conversation with reporters before his departure from Afghanistan, Austin declined to comment on whether the Taliban had fulfilled their obligations under the agreement, which would cause the departure of US forces from a country where they have been present since 2001.
“It is clear that the violence in the country remains quite high,” he said. Austin said. “We would like to see violence decrease, and I think it can begin to set the conditions for fruitful diplomatic work if it does.”
Mr. Austin expressed the idea of setting a different departure date for U.S. troops, saying Biden would make the decision.
“What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict,” he added in his remarks before leaving for the previously unannounced visit.
Mr. Biden said in an interview with ABC News last week that the deadline would be ‘difficult’. On Saturday, Mr. Austin, in talks with reporters in India, expressed confidence that he would be able to remove all remaining US troops from Afghanistan on May 1 if the president ordered him to do so.
The Secretary of Defense’s visit to Afghanistan came at the end of more than a week’s voyage across the Pacific during which he reassured allies that they would have the support of the United States to counter potential threats from China.
First, at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, the secretary was briefed by Administrator Philip S. Davidson on various threats in the region and how U.S. military assets were used in response. He flies past Japan and South Korea and joins Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken for talks with foreign ministers and defense ministers from both countries.
Both secretaries emphasized the Biden government’s position that diplomacy would again be the United States’ first foreign policy action.
In New Delhi, where Mr. Austin, Narendra Modi and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh met, senior U.S. defense officials said Indian leaders mostly talk about their concerns about China. The issue of Pakistan – India’s neighbor and traditional main enemy – only came up at the end of their talks.
The trip, the first from Austin, as a member of the cabinet, comes as President Biden wants to draw up a series of security agreements with various countries that can work together to respond to Chinese military operations in the South and East China Seas.
One such agreement between the United States, Australia, Japan and India – called “the four-wheeler” – has been repeatedly repeated by Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken mentioned as a model for joint military operations in the region. According to a senior defense official, Mr. Austin did not ask South Korea during his time in Seoul to join the four-wheel drive car.
Mr. Austin’s trip to Kabul was kept secret and would remain confidential until two hours after he left, but local reporters made the news of his visit after meeting with President Ashraf Ghani.
The secretary’s arrival in Kabul comes on Nowruz, the Persian new year – a date on which the Islamic State in Afghanistan has promised to carry out attacks. This led to the Pentagon supervising the secretary’s visit for as long as possible.
After Austin landed in Kabul, he boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter for a short flight to the headquarters of the U.S. military mission. Just outside the former football stadium that serves as the heliport of the commando, General Austin S. Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was quickly stopped by Mr. Austin walked to his office through a rush of small buildings and high concrete blast walls.
Mr Austin told reporters he had no specific message he conveyed to President Ghani, but rather wanted to listen to the Afghan president’s thoughts on the situation in his country.
“We have done a lot to work with the Afghan security forces,” he said. Austin said in response to a question regarding the problems Afghans may have after a US withdrawal. “And I do not want to speculate about what may or may not happen in the future.”