U.S. Defense Secretary Makes Secret Visit to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III landed in Afghanistan’s capital Sunday morning, changing into the primary member of President Biden’s cupboard to set foot within the nation that’s house to America’s longest battle.

The United States is tentatively set to withdraw American forces from the nation on May 1, the date set in an settlement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban greater than a yr in the past.

Speaking to reporters earlier than his departure from Afghanistan, Mr. Austin declined to touch upon whether or not the Taliban had met their obligations beneath that settlement, which might set off the departure of U.S. forces from a rustic the place they’ve had a steady presence since 2001.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Mr. Austin mentioned. “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 some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

Mr. Austin demurred on the concept of setting a special departure date for U.S. forces, saying that Mr. Biden would make that call.

“What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict,” he added in his remarks earlier than leaving for the beforehand unannounced go to.

Mr. Biden mentioned in an interview with ABC News broadcast this previous week that meeting the deadline would be “tough.” On Saturday, talking with reporters in India, Mr. Austin expressed confidence that he might take away all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, ought to the president direct him to accomplish that.

The protection secretary’s go to to Afghanistan got here on the finish of greater than per week of journey throughout the Pacific throughout which he reassured allies that they’d have the United States’ help in countering potential threats from China.

First, at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, the secretary was briefed by Adm. Philip S. Davidson on numerous threats within the area and the way American navy property have been deployed in response. Flying subsequent to Japan and South Korea, Mr. Austin joined Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken for talks with the international and protection ministers of each nations.

Both secretaries emphasised the Biden administration’s stance that diplomacy would once more be the United States’ first plan of action in international affairs.

In New Delhi, the place Mr. Austin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the protection minister, Rajnath Singh, senior U.S. protection officers mentioned that Indian leaders spoke largely about their issues concerning China. It was solely towards the top of their talks that the difficulty of Pakistan — India’s neighbor and conventional important enemy — got here up.

The journey, Mr. Austin’s first as a cupboard member, comes as President Biden seeks to construct a collection of safety agreements with numerous nations who might band collectively to reply to Chinese navy operations within the South and East China Seas.

One such settlement between the United States, Australia, Japan and India — known as “the quad” — was repeatedly cited by each Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken as a mannequin for mixed navy operations in area. Mr. Austin didn’t ask South Korea to be part of the quad throughout his time in Seoul, in accordance to a senior protection official.

Mr. Austin’s journey to Kabul was saved secret, and was to stay confidential till two hours after he left, however native reporters broke information of his go to after he met with President Ashraf Ghani.

The secretary’s arrival in Kabul got here on Nowruz, the Persian new yr — a date on which the Islamic State in Afghanistan had pledged to perform assaults. That led the Pentagon to hold the secretary’s go to beneath wraps so long as attainable.

After touchdown in Kabul, Mr. Austin boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter for a quick flight to the headquarters of the American navy mission. Just off the previous soccer stadium that serves because the command’s heliport, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the American commander in Afghanistan, rapidly walked Mr. Austin via a warren of small buildings and tall concrete blast partitions to his workplace.

Mr. Austin instructed reporters that he had no explicit message that he conveyed to President Ghani, preferring as an alternative to pay attention to the Afghan president’s ideas on the state of affairs in his nation.

“We’ve done a lot to work with the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Austin mentioned in response to a query concerning issues Afghans may need following a U.S. withdrawal. “And I don’t want to speculate about what could happen or what could not happen going forward.”

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