U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and said more progress was needed in the Afghan peace negotiations before Western forces withdrew from the war-torn country.
“Obviously, the violence is too high right now and further progress needs to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations,” Secretary Austin said at a Pentagon press conference on Friday.
“I urge all parties to choose the path to peace, and the violence must decrease now,” Austin said a day after discussing Afghanistan with NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
The United States “will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan” which endangers NATO forces, Austin said, adding “that no decision regarding our future position of strength has been taken. . “
“In the meantime, the current missions will continue and, of course, commanders have the right and the responsibility to defend themselves and their Afghan partners against attacks,” he said.
New US President Joe Biden faces a thorny choice in Afghanistan: withdraw all US forces by the end of April – as promised to the Taliban by the former Trump administration – or expand the presence of US troops while trying to support the troubled Afghan peace talks.
Deputy Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on February 16 called the United States honor its agreement on the withdrawal of international troops and warned that the group would not allow continued interference in Afghan affairs.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States said on Friday that the Biden administration should negotiate with the Taliban over any decision to keep troops in the country.
“The first party that needs to be consulted is the Taliban. This is where the process should start, ”Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan said in an online forum sponsored by the Stimson Center.
“Presenting this as a fait accompli, I think, will only create difficulties,” Khan warned, according to Reuters news agency.
In Washington, meanwhile, foreign policy leaders and members of Congress are increasingly calling for a continued US presence in Afghanistan.
The congressionally-mandated US bipartisan task force on Afghanistan recommended a new approach to Afghanistan earlier this month. Group leaders testified on Capitol Hill on Friday.
“We recommend that US troops stay beyond May 1,” said Kelly Ayotte, study group co-chair and former US Republican senator.
“We believe that a hasty withdrawal of US and international troops in May would be catastrophic for Afghanistan, leading to civil war and allow the re-establishment of terrorist groups that could threaten the United States,” Ayotte said.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the al Qaeda attacks of September 11. At the time, the Taliban controlled the country and gave Al Qaeda the safe zone.
Retired General Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Army under President Barack Obama, said the study group now saw an opportunity for “a broader diplomatic effort in favor of peace negotiations in Afghanistan ”.
“There actually appears to be an end state that would satisfy all regional stakeholders to include Pakistan, China, Russia, India and others,” Dunford said.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have said they recognize the situation in Afghanistan is fragile and that the current withdrawal could result in the loss of the progress made over the past 20 years.
“A withdrawal under current conditions is likely to lead to the collapse of the Afghan state,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, Democratic chairman of a House government oversight subcommittee.
Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican, said he doubted the Taliban could be called upon for a lasting peace deal.
“Essentially, we are discussing the end of the war and building on the concept that US involvement in the current civil war in Afghanistan will end when the main threat – the Taliban – is committed to peace,” he said. Gosar said. “It seems rather impossible.”
The United States and the Taliban reached a deal in February 2020 – after months of negotiations in Doha, Qatar – that called for a permanent ceasefire, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. and the withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 1.
There are currently approximately 2,500 US troops and 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. A US decision to stay beyond May 1 would likely lead to renewed conflict with the Taliban and require the deployment of 2,000 or more US forces, Dunford said.