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U.S. Defense Chief Makes Unannounced Afghan Visit As Troop Withdrawal Deadline Looms

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (center) walks past a guard of honor during his visit to Kabul on March 21.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on March 21 just weeks before Washington is due to withdraw the last of its troops under a deal struck with the Taliban last year.

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Dawa Khan Minapal told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Austin and President Ashraf Ghani discussed the security situation in Afghanistan and expressed concern over continuing violence.

Austin's trip marks the first visit to Afghanistan by a high-ranking official of the new U.S. administration. He told reporters traveling with him that senior U.S. officials want to see "a responsible end to this conflict" and "a transition to something else," according to The Washington Post.

"There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there is a lot of energy focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war," Austin said.

President Joe Biden said last week in a television interview that it would be "tough" for Washington to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The date for the withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. troops was laid out in an agreement between former President Donald Trump’s administration and the Taliban on February 29 last year.

Biden said that, even if the deadline was extended, it wouldn’t be prolonged by a "lot longer."

NBC News last week quoted two sources as saying that Biden was considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until November.

After talks with President Ashraf Ghani on March 21, Austin declined to comment on the deadline.

"That's the domain of my boss," he said.

"That's the...decision that the President (Biden) will make at some point in time, in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward."

The Taliban on March 19 warned of consequences if Washington doesn’t meet the deadline. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters that, if U.S. troops stay beyond May 1, "t will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side. . . Their violation will have a reaction."

The Afghan government accuses the Taliban of doing too little to halt violence since intra-Afghan talks got going in September in Qatar.

An international conference on the way ahead in Afghanistan was held last week in Moscow with the participation of delegations from the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan as well as representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban.

In a joint statement issued by the U.S. State Department after the conclusion of the March 18 conference, the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan called on Afghanistan's warring sides to "engage immediately in discussions on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict."

The Moscow conference was seen as a curtain-raiser for a larger meeting of regional players in Turkey in April requested by the Biden administration

With reporting by AP, AFP, and TOLOnews
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