Pentagon chief makes surprise stop in Afghanistan as generals warn of premature drawdown

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, his first as Pentagon chief, as top generals warned that the country could fall into chaos if U.S. troops withdraw prematurely.

Austin, near the end of a weeklong trip, was greeted by Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after arriving at the military headquarters here.

President Joe Biden has not yet made a decision on whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, the deadline stipulated by an agreement he inherited from the Trump administration. But as the clock ticks down, meeting that deadline seems increasingly less feasible; Biden himself said a complete U.S. withdrawal by that date would be “tough.”

If the American pullout goes ahead before diplomatic efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government to end the conflict yield results, fighting will intensify across the country and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government could lose its fragile hold on key areas, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview this week.

“If we withdraw and no deal was made with the Taliban, I think the government of Afghanistan is going to be in for a very stiff fight to retain possession” of urban population centers, McKenzie warned.

As Biden weighs a decision, the Pentagon has presented options ranging from leaving by May 1 as planned to maintaining current troop levels indefinitely, according to two defense officials familiar with the discussions.

Leaving by May 1 would be difficult but doable, one of the officials said. The U.S. maintains just under 3,500 troops on the ground, about 1,000 more than was previously disclosed, the person said. This includes special operations personnel who were put “off the books,” a common practice. The New York Times first reported the higher number.

In a press briefing in New Delhi on Saturday, Austin, himself a former Central Command chief, insisted that all options are still on the table.

“There’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me,” Austin said, referring to his time overseeing the Iraq drawdown. “Whatever decision the president makes, you can trust it will be fully supported.”

If the Taliban and the Afghan government do not reach a deal by May 1, Biden could choose to keep U.S. forces in place temporarily. But that decision would likely prompt the Taliban to renew attacks on American troops — attacks that have mostly halted since the February 2020 agreement, officials warned.

Defense officials have said the Taliban is not meeting the conditions laid out in the agreement to end support to terrorist groups, stop attacking Afghan national security forces and make progress on a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

“Thus far the Taliban has been, to put it politely, reticent to meet their requirements,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a recent briefing. “They make it that much more difficult for a final decision to be made about force presence by their reticence to commit to reasonable, sustainable and credible negotiations at the table.”

Absent some reconciliation between the two parties or a commitment allowing the U.S. to keep some counterterrorism capabilities in the country, officials suspect eventually the Taliban “will turn back to attacking us,” one of the officials said.

“We are OK” at current levels, the person said. “The question is, now what?”

After visiting the headquarters, Austin drove to the U.S. embassy to meet with the chargé d’affaires, Ross Wilson, before heading to the palace for a meeting with Ghani. Back at headquarters, Austin visited with troops before heading back to the airport.

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