U.S. Defense Chief Austin pays unannounced visit to Afghanistan

Austin expected to meet with President Ghani and other senior government officials.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Kabul on his first trip to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief amid swirling questions about how long US troops will stay in the country.

Austin arrived in Kabul from India on Sunday, state media reported. He was due to meet with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior government officials.

Last week, President Joe Biden said it would be “difficult” for the United States to meet the May 1 deadline to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

But he added that if the deadline, which is set in an agreement between former President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban, was extended, it would not be “much longer.”

The Taliban on Friday warned of the consequences if the United States did not meet the deadline.

Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team, told reporters that if US troops stay beyond May 1, “it will be kind of a breach of the agreement. This violation would not be on our side… Their violation will have a reaction ”.

Austin is also expected to meet with the new acting defense minister, General Yasin Zia, who was appointed this week.

In a very specific letter to President Ghani earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was an urgent need to establish peace in Afghanistan.

He also warned that the Taliban is likely to achieve rapid territorial gains if US and NATO troops withdraw.

The United States spends $ 4 billion a year to support the Afghan national security forces.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance “will only leave when the time is right” and when the conditions are right.

“The main problem is that the Taliban must reduce violence, the Taliban must negotiate in good faith, and the Taliban must stop supporting international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda,” Stoltenberg said.

Austin has said little publicly about the current impasse. After a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers, Austin told reporters that “our presence in Afghanistan is conditional and the Taliban must honor their commitments.”

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