Blinken visits Afghanistan as US set to withdraw troops

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, at the State Department in Washington, DC on March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Nick Wadhams Bloomberg News (TNS)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to brief the country’s leaders on U.S. plans to withdraw its remaining troops by Sept. 11 and to press for a peace agreement with the Taliban.

Blinken made the stop, which wasn’t announced beforehand in keeping with the strict security measures required for such visits, after President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. was pulling the more than 2,500 remaining troops from the country by the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. An additional 7,000 allied forces are also expected to withdraw.

“The reason I’m here, so quickly after the president’s speech last night, is to demonstrate literally, by our presence, that we have an enduring an ongoing commitment to Afghanistan,” Blinken told a crowd at the U.S Embassy in Kabul. He then met with President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, saying the two countries’ “partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”

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“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani told him.

The trip comes after Blinken visited NATO allies in Brussels to coordinate plans for the withdrawal. The decision pushes back a May 1 deadline that the Trump administration agreed to with Taliban leaders last year, and the move risks retaliation against Afghan and U.S. forces.

Military and diplomatic leaders had said a rushed withdrawal could destabilize the country. Officials had also argued that the Pentagon’s previous “conditions-based” approach for withdrawal was a recipe for leaving U.S. forces in the country forever.

Although some members of Congress have endorsed Biden’s withdrawal plans, lawmakers from both parties have said it would set the stage for the Taliban to return to power and for terrorists from al-Qaeda and Islamic State to re-establish operations in the country.

Blinken told reporters in Brussels on April 14 that the U.S. will work closely with allies on a “safe, deliberate and coordinated withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan.”

U.S. officials hope the impending troop withdrawal will create a new sense of urgency for Ghani’s government to agree to a peace deal with the Taliban. At the same time, it’s complicated a U.S.-backed peace conference in Istanbul that representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were due to attend from April 24. The Taliban said in a tweet late Tuesday that it wouldn’t participate.

A report on worldwide threats issued by U.S. intelligence agencies on April 13 forecast that the Taliban “is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

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