US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell Afghan leaders and a wary public on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from the country and end America’s longest-running war.
Mr Blinken sought to assure senior Afghan politicians that the United States remains committed to the country despite Mr Biden’s announcement a day earlier that the 2,500 US soldiers remaining in the country would be coming home by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks that led to the US invasion in 2001.
“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Mr Blinken told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as they met at the presidential palace in Kabul.
“The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring.”
“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Mr Ghani told Mr Blinken, expressing gratitude for the sacrifices of US troops.
Later, in a meeting with Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the National Reconciliation Council, Mr Blinken repeated his message, saying that “we have a new chapter, but it is a new chapter that we’re writing together.”
“We are grateful to your people, your country, your administration,” Mr Abdullah said.
Nato immediately followed Mr Biden’s lead on Wednesday, saying its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan would be departing within a few months, ending the foreign military presence that had been a fact of life for a generation of Afghans already reeling from more than 40 years of conflict.
Mr Blinken arrived in the Afghan capital from Brussels, where he and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed Nato officials on the US decision and won quick approval from the allies to end their Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
Mr Biden, Mr Blinken, Mr Austin have all tried to put a brave face on the pullout, maintaining that the US- and Nato-led missions to Afghanistan had achieved their goal of decimating Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida network that launched the 9/11 attacks and clearing the country of terrorist elements that could use Afghan soil to plot similar strikes.
However, that argument has faced pushback from some US politicians and human rights advocates, who say the withdrawal will result in the loss of freedoms that Afghans enjoyed after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
“My views are very pessimistic,” Naheed Farid, a member of parliament, told reporters when asked her thoughts about the future of her country.
Ms Farid was one of a half-dozen, mostly women, civic leaders who met with Blinken at the US Embassy in Kabul. She did not elaborate.
At a news conference in the capital before leaving, Mr Blinken said while America is drawing down its military force, it is stepping up its engagement with the Afghan government and people and would continue financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces.
Washington pays a four-billion-dollar-a-year bill to maintain Afghanistan’s security forces.
“Our partnership with Afghanistan is enduring. We will remain side by side going forward,” Mr Blinken promised.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are at a stalemate but are supposed to resume later this month in Istanbul.
Mr Blinken added: “It’s important for the Taliban to recognise that it will never be legitimate and it will never be durable if it rejects the political process and tries to take the country by force.”
Under an agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year, the US was to have completed its military withdrawal by May 1.
Although Mr Biden is blowing through that deadline, angering the Taliban leadership, his plan calls for the pullout to begin on May 1. The Nato withdrawal will commence the same day.
The Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed warned on Wednesday that “problems will be compounded,” if the US misses the May 1 withdrawal deadline. The insurgent movement has yet to respond to Mr Biden’s surprise announcement that the pullout would only start on that date.
In a meeting with staff at the US Embassy in Kabul, Mr Blinken said he understood this was a time of “real transition” for the entire US mission in Afghanistan and that it was “particularly stressful” because of the uncertainties raised by Mr Biden’s announcement on top of the challenges they have already been facing, including the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Blinken also assured the mission’s Afghan staff that a special US visa programme would be safeguarded.
The programme allows easier visa access for Afghans who have worked for the US and as a result may have put themselves in danger.
In his announcement in Washington on Tuesday, Mr Biden said it was “time to end America’s longest war”. But he added that the US will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit”.
Mr Biden, along with Mr Blinken and Mr Austin in Brussels, also vowed that the US would remain committed to Afghanistan’s people and development.
Mr Austin said that the US military, after withdrawing from Afghanistan, will keep counterterrorism “capabilities” in the region to keep pressure on extremist groups operating within Afghanistan.
Asked for details, he declined to elaborate on where those US forces would be positioned or in what numbers.