Austin expected to meet President Ghani and other senior government officials.US defence secretary Lloyd Austin has arrived in Kabul on his first trip to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief amid swirling questions about how long American troops will remain in the country.
Austin arrived in Kabul from India on Sunday, state-owned media reported. He was expected to meet President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials.
Last week, President Joe Biden said it would be “tough” for the US to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
But he added that if the deadline, which is laid out in an agreement between former President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban, is extended, it would not be by a “lot longer”.
On Friday, the Taliban warned of consequences if the US failed to meet the deadline.
Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters that if US troops stay beyond May 1, “it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side … Their violation will have a reaction”.
Austin is also expected to meet Afghanistan’s new acting defence minister, General Yasin Zia, who was appointed this week.
In a sharply worded letter to President Ghani earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was urgent to establish peace in Afghanistan.
He also warned that it is likely the Taliban would make swift territorial gains if US and NATO troops withdrew.
The US spends $4bn annually to sustain Afghanistan’s National Security Forces.
Last month, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “will only leave when the time is right” and when conditions have been met.
“The main issue is that Taliban has to reduce violence, Taliban has to negotiate in good faith and Taliban has to stop supporting international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda,” Stoltenberg said.
Austin has said little on the record about the ongoing impasse. After a virtual meeting of NATO defence ministers, Austin told reporters that “our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and Taliban has to meet their commitments”.