Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Sunday as President Joe Biden’s administration faces a decision on whether to withdraw troops by a May 1 deadline as required in a U.S. agreement with the Taliban.
The first member of Biden’s cabinet to travel to the country, Austin met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to the press pool traveling with the secretary.
“I came to Afghanistan to listen and learn,” Austin said in a tweet accompanied by a photo of him meeting President Ghani. The visit was “very helpful” and will help inform the administration’s decisions on Afghanistan, he said.
Austin flew to Kabul from New Delhi as part of a trip that included visits to Japan and South Korea.
Before arriving in Afghanistan, he told reporters in India that President Biden “has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he’ll decide to remove” U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“In terms of an end date, setting a specific end date for withdrawal, that’s the domain of my boss, that’s the … the decision that the president will make at some point in time in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward,” Austin said. He later said, “What we want to see is a responsible end to this conflict.”
Former President Donald Trump’s administration signed an agreement with the Taliban last year that called for all U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1 in return for the insurgents entering into peace talks with their adversaries in the Afghan government and committing to prevent Al Qaeda or other extremists from launching terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
NBC News previously reported that Biden is considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until November, rather than withdrawing them by the May 1st deadline.
The military has presented several options to the White House, including pulling troops out by or close to May 1, keeping troops in the country indefinitely or keeping troops in Afghanistan for a defined period to be determined by Biden, which could include a six-month extension, NBC News has reported.
Biden said in an interview with ABC News last week that a troop withdrawal “could happen, but it is tough.” The president said that if the troop exit date was delayed, it would not be by “a lot longer.”
“I’m in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave,” Biden told ABC News.
There are roughly 2,500 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since an American-led force toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda militants who staged the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Mosheh Gains contributed.