U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to Defense Department personnel during a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, February 10, 2021.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that the Biden administration had not yet decided whether the United States would withdraw its troops by the May 1 deadline.
Last February the United States brokered a deal with the Taliban that would usher in a permanent cease-fire and reduced further the U.S. military’s footprint from approximately 13,000 troops to 8,600 by mid-July last year.
By May 2021, all foreign forces would leave the war-weary country, according to the deal. There are about 2,500 U.S. troops currently in the country.
“I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace. The violence must decrease, now,” Austin said, in his first press briefing with reporters.
“I told our allies that no matter what the outcome of our review, the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said referring to this week’s virtual NATO meetings.
“There will be no surprises. We will consult each other, consult together and decide together and act together,” Austin said of the NATO-led mission.
A day prior, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance will continue to assess the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. NATO joined the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003 and currently has more than 7,000 troops in the country.
“Our aim is to make sure that we have a lasting political agreement that can make it possible for us to leave in a way that doesn’t undermine our main goal and that is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming once again a safe haven [for terrorists],” Stoltenberg said.
“The majority of the troops are from European allies and partner countries. We will do what is necessary to make sure that our troops are secure,” he said when asked if the alliance was prepared for violence if the agreement with the Taliban is broken.
Members of Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team depart to conduct an equipment survey of a Department of Public Works facility Aug. 8 in Afghanistan.
Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Chacon | Flickr CC
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan lawmakers pressed a panel of experts on Friday that recommend the United States not reduce its military presence in Afghanistan.
“Since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began nearly 20 years ago, more than 775,000 of our brave men and women in uniform have deployed to Afghanistan. More than 2,400 have made the ultimate sacrifice, and another 20,000 have been wounded,” Rep. Stephen Lynch, chairman of the Oversight and Reform subcommittee on national security, said in his opening statement.
“Nearly 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan might very well be defined by the next three to six months. Likely with profound consequences for U.S. national security and the future stability of the region,” he added.
The panel wrote in a report released earlier this month that U.S. troops should keep troops in the war-torn country “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”
Read more: Biden should keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past May deadline, study group says
The recommendations from the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally mandated panel under the United States Institute of Peace, comes as the Biden administration conducts a review of its force posture in the region.
“At what point is enough, enough for American engagement in this region?” asked congressman Clay Higgins from Louisiana. “If there’s a presence required of American military force, why does that have to include actual boots on the ground?”
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, who co-chairs the Afghanistan Study Group, said that U.S. intelligence would deteriorate if the military withdrew from the country.
“In order to be effective in conducting counterterrorism, you have to create an ecosystem, if you will, of intelligence and we would not have the networks available to us from an intelligence perspective, we would not have the platform availability, that is the systems that allow us to collect that intelligence, and we wouldn’t have the ability to strike quickly with the resources necessary to destroy terrorists once the intelligence develops their location,” Dunford, a retired four-star Marine general, told lawmakers.
“So, were we to do it from outside of Afghanistan, you would just merely have a geometry problem and responsiveness problem, you would not be as effective,” he added.
The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.57 trillion since Sept. 11, 2001, according to a Defense Department report. The war in Afghanistan, which is now America’s longest conflict, began 19 years ago and has cost U.S. taxpayers $193 billion, according to the Pentagon.