On Friday, February 19, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participated in his first news conference as Pentagon chief. The hot topic was Afghanistan and the looming May 1 troop withdrawal date.
According to the Associated Press, the willingness of the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan will be dictated by the actions of the Taliban, specifically their willingness to reduce violence and to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government.
Austin candidly said, “clearly the violence is too high.”
Austin was not willing to provide any information on whether the U.S. intends to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline or if there are plans to re-address the peace deal with the intent of maintaining a troop presence in the country for an extended period of time.
However, Secretary of Defense Austin did say, “We are mindful of the looming deadlines, but we want to do this methodically and deliberately, but we’re focused on making sure that we make the right decisions, and we’ll go through this process deliberately.”
A year ago, the Trump Administration arranged a peace deal with the Taliban. The agreement was that there would be a phased withdrawal of foreign troops out of Afghanistan, with the last of the troops leaving by May 1. In return, the Taliban were required to begin peace talks with the Afghan government, cease attacks on U.S. troops, and denounce all connections with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
Austin pointed out that the violence “must decrease now” and that the Taliban must continue peace talks with the Afghan government.
It’s no secret that the fight in Afghanistan has been going on for quite some time and many are ready to close this chapter, but the U.S. has to continue weighing its options.
There are multiple allied countries that have their troops on the ground in Afghanistan, which complicates the withdrawal process further. Currently, the U.S. makes up 2,500 of the 10,000 foreign troops training and advising the Afghan military.
Other countries have expressed their willingness to stay in-country if need be.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said on Friday that Germany is willing to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan.
She commented that “withdrawal must not mean that the wrong forces get the upper hand again.”
Last week, Austin met with NATO defense ministers. He guaranteed that the U.S. would keep them apprised of the situation and the U.S.’s intended plans for withdrawal.
He stated that “the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts [the allied] forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk.”
This past Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that allied countries still hope for the continuation of peace talks and the opportunity for a ceasefire.
Stoltenberg admitted that the allies have some tough decisions to make: “We are faced with very hard and difficult dilemmas. Because, if we stay beyond May 1, we risk more violence, we risk more attacks against our own troops, and we risk, of course, also to be part of a continued presence in Afghanistan that will be difficult. But, if we leave, then we also risk that the gains we have made are [sic] lost and that Afghanistan again could become a safe haven for international terrorists.”