WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first news conference as Pentagon chief, said Friday that progress toward peace in Afghanistan and an end to U.S. military involvement there depends on the Taliban reducing attacks. He said, right now, “clearly the violence is too high.”
He refused, however, to say when the U.S. will decide if it will meet the May 1 deadline for full troop withdrawal, or if America and its NATO allies will try to renegotiate the peace deal 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 major national security dilemma 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 empowering the Taliban and causing a resurgence in terrorism.
Under the deal with the Taliban struck by the Trump administration one year ago this month, the United States promised a phased withdrawal of troops, so that by May 1, 2021, all foreign troops would be gone. For their part, the Taliban committed to starting peace talks with the Afghan government, ending attacks on American forces, and publicly renouncing all ties to al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Austin made it clear that the Taliban violence “must decrease now,” and that progress in negotiations with the Afghan government must move forward.
Austin, a retired four-star Army general who oversaw U.S. forces in Afghanistan and across the Mideast for three years during the Obama administration, said the Biden administration is reviewing the options for its next steps in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been deployed for nearly 20 years.
American forces make up about 2,500 of the roughly 10,000 troops training and advising the Afghans. And allies have suggested a willingness to continue the mission if needed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that her government is willing to keep troops in Afghanistan longer if needed to ensure that the country does not descend into chaos.
“Withdrawal must not mean that the wrong forces get the upper hand again,” she said.
Austin, who met with NATO defense ministers this week, said he assured allies that they will be kept informed as the U.S. considers its options. And, he said he told 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 indication of his plan for troop levels in Afghanistan. He pledged to support the peace process and to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert 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 choices for the U.S. and NATO are difficult.
“We are faced with very hard and difficult dilemmas,” Stoltenberg told reporters after Austin and his fellow NATO defense ministers consulted by 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 international terrorists.”
In other comments on Friday, Austin said the ongoing Pentagon effort to root out racism and extremism in the military will likely identify just a small number of problems in the force. “But, quite frankly, they’ll probably be a little bit larger than most of us would guess,” he added. “I would just say that ... small numbers in this case can 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 defense chief. He said he delivered the message that Biden has decided the U.S. will no longer support offensive Saudi military operations in Yemen.
“They heard that message loud and clear,” said Austin, who knows many key leaders in the Middle East from his years as head of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016.