Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first news conference as Pentagon leader, said Friday that progress toward stability in Afghanistan and an end to U.S. military intervention there depends on the Taliban reducing attacks. He said, right now, “clearly the violence is too high.”
He declined, however, to say when the U.S. will determine whether it will meet the May 1 deadline for complete troop withdrawal, or whether America and its NATO allies will try to renegotiate the peace agreement with the Taliban and keep some troops there longer.
“We are mindful of the looming deadlines, but we want to do this methodically and deliberately,” Austin said. “But we’re focused on making sure that we make the right decisions, and we’ll go through this process deliberately.”
Afghanistan is shaping up as a big national security challenge for Austin and the rest of President Joe Biden’s fledgling national security team. There is little political appetite to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but pulling them out risks further strengthening the Taliban and triggering a revival in terrorism.
Under the deal with the Taliban negotiated by the Trump administration one year earlier this month, the United States promised a staggered withdrawal of forces, so that by May 1, 2021, all foreign troops will be gone. For their part, the Taliban committed to beginning peace talks with the Afghan government, stopping attacks on American forces, and openly renouncing all links to al-Qaida and other militant groups.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Austin made it clear that the Taliban activity “must decrease now,” and that progress in talks with the Afghan government must move forward.
Austin, a former four-star Army general who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and around the Mideast for three years during the Obama administration, said the Biden administration is evaluating the options for its next steps in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been stationed for nearly 20 years.
American forces make up about 2,500 of the nearly 10,000 troops training and advising the Afghans. And allies have suggested a willingness to continue the task if needed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that her government is willing to hold troops in Afghanistan longer if needed to ensure that the country does not descend into turmoil.
“Withdrawal must not mean that the wrong forces get the upper hand again,” she said.
Austin, who met with NATO defence ministers this week, said he told allies that they would be kept updated while the U.S. considers its options. And, he said he assured them that “the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk.”
In remarks earlier Friday to a virtual meeting of the Munich Security Conference, Biden gave no hint of his strategy for troop levels in Afghanistan. He vowed to help the peace process and to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to being a launching pad for international terrorist attacks.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday the allies are holding out hope for a “re-energized” peace process that could lead to a cease-fire as a step toward a final political settlement. Short of that, the options for the U.S. and NATO are complicated.
“We are faced with very hard and difficult dilemmas,” Stoltenberg told reporters after Austin and his fellow NATO defence ministers met via video teleconference. “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 lost and that Afghanistan again could become a safe haven for foreign terrorists.”
In other comments on Friday, Austin said the current Pentagon campaign to root out racism and extremism in the military would likely find only a small number of problems in the army. “But, quite frankly, they’ll probably be a little bit larger than most of us would guess,” he said. “I would just say that … small numbers in this case may have an outsized impact.”
Austin also said he spoke on Thursday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is the kingdom’s defence chief. He said he delivered the message that Biden has agreed the U.S. will no longer support aggressive Saudi military operations in Yemen.
“They heard that message loud and clear,” said Austin, who knows several important leaders in the Middle East from his years as head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016.