United States defence secretary Lloyd Austin called for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and said more progress is needed in Afghan peace negotiations before Western forces withdraw from the war-torn country.
“Clearly, the violence is too high right now and more progress needs to be to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations,” Secretary Austin said at a Pentagon news conference on Friday.
“I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace, and the violence must decrease now,” Austin said a day after discussing Afghanistan with NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
The US “will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan” that puts NATO forces at risk, Austin said, adding “no decisions about our future force posture have been made.”
“In the meantime, current missions will continue and, of course, commanders have the right and the responsibility to defend themselves and their Afghan partners against attack,” he said.
New US President Joe Biden faces a thorny choice in Afghanistan: whether to withdraw all US forces by the end of April – as promised to the Taliban by the former Trump administration – or extend the US troop presence while trying to sustain troubled Afghan peace talks.
Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar on February 16 called on the US to honour its agreement regarding international troop withdrawals and warned that the group would not allow continuing interference in Afghan affairs.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the US said on Friday the Biden administration should negotiate with the Taliban on any decision to keep troops in the country.
“The first party that needs to be consulted is the Taliban. That is where the process should start,” Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan told an online forum sponsored by the Stimson Center.
“To present this as a fait accompli, I think, will only create difficulty,” Khan cautioned, according to the Reuters news agency.
In Washington, meanwhile, there are increasing calls by foreign policy leaders and members of Congress for a continuing US presence in Afghanistan.
The bipartisan US Afghanistan Study Group, mandated by Congress, recommended a new approach to Afghanistan earlier this month. Leaders of the group testified on Capitol Hill on Friday.
“We recommend that US troops remain beyond May 1,” said Kelly Ayotte, a co-chair of the study group and a former Republican US senator.
“We believe a precipitous withdrawal of US and international troops in May, would be catastrophic for Afghanistan, leading to civil war and allow the reconstitution of terror groups which could threaten the United States,” Ayotte said.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks. At the time, the Taliban controlled the country and had given al-Qaeda safe harbour.
Retired General Joseph Dunford, a former chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama, said the study group sees an opportunity now for a “broader diplomatic effort in support of the Afghan peace negotiations”.
“There does in fact appear to be an end state that would satisfy all regional stakeholders to include Pakistan, China, Russia, India, and others,” Dunford said.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress said they recognise the situation in Afghanistan is fragile and withdrawing now could result in a loss of progress made during the past 20 years.
“A withdrawal made under current conditions will likely lead to a collapse of the Afghan state,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, the Democratic chairman of a House Government Oversight subcommittee.
Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican, said he doubts the Taliban can be relied upon for a durable peace agreement.
“Essentially, we’re discussing war termination, and banking on the concept that US involvement in the current civil war in Afghanistan will end when the primary threat – the Taliban – has committed to peace,” Gosar said. “It seems rather impossible.”
The US and the Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020 – after months of negotiations in Doha, Qatar – that called for a permanent ceasefire, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and a withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 1.
Peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul government began in September but have been marred by continuing conflict, attacks and Taliban-linked assassinations.
There are about 2,500 US troops and 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan now. A US decision to remain past May 1 would likely result in renewed conflict with the Taliban and require the deployment of 2,000 or more US forces, Dunford said.