Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Afghanistan on Thursday for a surprise visit less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by Sept. 11 of this year.
While in Kabul, Blinken was expected to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar as well as civil society members to discuss the decision.
Blinken has pledged that the removal of U.S. forces will not mean an end to Washington’s commitment to Afghanistan.
Ghani has said he respects the U.S. decision to withdraw, writing on Twitter following a conversation with Biden that “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country, which they have been doing all along.”
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Other prominent Afghan government officials were not so optimistic.
Mir Rahman Rahmani, speaker of the Afghan Parliament, said Wednesday that while the country’s people want to see foreign forces leave, “the conditions are not met for that to happen yet.”
“It is possible that Afghanistan turns into another civil war or becomes a haven for international terrorist organizations,” Speaker Rahmani warned in a speech on the parliamentary floor.
“We expect the withdrawal to be conditions-based and dependent upon peace, security, and long-term stability; otherwise, history will repeat itself.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of former President Donald Trump, said the withdrawal would backfire by prolonging the conflict and possibly even breathing new life into Al Qaeda. “What do we lose by pulling out? We lose that insurance policy against another 9/11,” Graham said.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban that foreign troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1 in exchange for their commitment to both disavow Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as well as enter into peace talks with an Afghan delegation.
Intra-Afghan negotiations have continued for months in Doha, Qatar. Turkey announced earlier this week that representatives of both the Afghan government and the insurgent group would meet in Istanbul later this month to accelerate the discussions.
“I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth.”
“It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.”
Biden said that the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan government and will provide assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The U.S. will also continue diplomatic and humanitarian work in the country and will support the peace talks.
About 2,500 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan — the lowest number since 2001.
As part of their agreement with the U.S., the Taliban also committed to a reduction in violence. But fighting between the two sides has continued despite the talks and civilian casualties and apolitical assassinations have surged.
In the wake of Biden’s decision, the Taliban said they will not participate in any negotiations on the future of Afghanistan until all foreign troops have withdrawn.
Speaking in Brussels before his arrival in Kabul, Blinken warned that the Taliban have a choice to make if they want international recognition or support, insisting that there are a “series of incentives and disincentives that will continue to shape what happens.”
“It’s in no one’s interest, including the Taliban to plunge Afghanistan back into a long war into a civil war that will do terrible damage to the country and to everyone,” he said, adding “ultimately, people of Afghanistan will be the ones to decide their future.”
Blinken held a press conference in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Stoltenberg confirmed the withdrawal of all NATO-led forces by May 1 and said it planned to complete the drawdown of all its troops “within a few months.”
“We went into Afghanistan together. We have adjusted our posture together. And we are united in leaving together,” he said.
NATO currently has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than 7,000 of which are non-U.S. forces.
With boots on the ground for nearly two decades, around 2,300 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the country and more than 20,000 have been wounded in what many have referred to as a “forever” war.
More than 100,000 thousand Afghan civilians have also been killed or injured in the fighting since the U.S. invaded in 2001.