Friday, April 23, 2021

Top US general flies into Kabul on surprise visit

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first member of Biden’s cabinet to visit Afghanistan, called for a responsible end to the war but would not say whether the deadline for the withdrawal of troops will be met.

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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, weeks before the scheduled withdrawal of all remaining US troops.

The pull-out was agreed with the Taliban by the Trump administration last year. The Afghan government was not involved in the talks.

After meeting President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Austin called for a responsible end to the war but would not say whether the deadline would be met, the BBC reports.

He said the focus should first be on reducing current high levels of violence to allow a negotiated end to the conflict.

But there are questions over whether the insurgents have kept their pledge to negotiate with the Afghan government.

New US President Joe Biden has said the May 1 deadline would be tough to meet, prompting warnings of “consequences” from the Taliban.

Austin is the first member of Biden’s cabinet to visit Afghanistan. He flew into Kabul on Sunday at the end of a brief tour of Asia.

Speaking to journalists, he would not say whether the Taliban had met their obligations under the recent deal.

“It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” he said, quoted by the New York Times.

“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.”

There are fears that if foreign forces withdraw before a lasting agreement is reached, the Taliban might return to power.

The US says it has some 2,500 troops still in Afghanistan and the Trump administration made withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan a priority.

The deal he signed in February 2020 said that the US and its Nato allies would withdraw all troops in 14 months if the Taliban upheld its promises, including not allowing Al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in areas it controlled, and proceeding with national peace talks.

Although the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist movement, stopped attacks on international forces as part of the historic agreement, it has continued to fight the Afghan government.

As a condition of starting negotiations with the Afghan government, the Taliban also demanded that thousands of their men be released in a prisoner swap.

Direct talks then began in Doha in September 2020, but a breakthrough has still not been reached.

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