Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made an unannounced visit to Kabul to brief officials on Washington's plans to withdraw all U.S. troops by September 11 -- the 20th anniversary of the attacks that triggered the American and NATO intervention in Afghanistan.
Blinken's visit came hours after President Joe Biden's announcement on April 14 that he was ending America's longest conflict, dubbed "the forever war," by bringing home the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops.
Blinken met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as well as senior U.S. officials in Kabul and briefed them on Biden's plan.
"I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan," Blinken said after meeting with Ghani.
“The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring,” he added.
Blinken, who also met with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Afghan civic leaders, arrived from Brussels where NATO on April 14 announced that its roughly 7,000 non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan would be departing within a few months, as well.
The September 11 date announced by Biden marks a four-month delay to the May 1 deadline agreed between the administration of former President Donald Trump and the Taliban in February 2020 and comes despite a deadlock in peace negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government.
“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani told Blinken, voicing gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. troops.
More than 2,300 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2001.
"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result," Biden said on April 14.
After a phone call with Biden on April 14, Ghani said Afghan forces are "fully capable" of controlling the country.
Both the United States and NATO have sought to paint the unconditional pullout as a victory, maintaining that they had achieved their goal of destroying the Al-Qaeda network that launched the 9/11 attacks and clearing the country of terrorist elements that could use Afghan soil to plot similar strikes.
But the announcement of the unconditional pullout has caused widespread concern in Afghanistan, where people live in fear of daily bombings and targeted assassinations by the Taliban.
Some U.S, lawmakers and human rights advocates also warned that the withdrawal will result in the loss of freedoms that Afghans enjoyed after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
During his talks with Abdullah, Blinken pledged full U.S. support for such freedoms, including hard-fought gains in women's rights.
"Secretary Blinken reiterated the U.S. commitment to the peace process and that we will use our full diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian toolkit to support the future the Afghan people want, including the gains made by Afghan women," a State Department statement said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has expressed anger over the announcement of the delayed withdrawal, even threatening to resume hostilities against U.S. troops.
"If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded and those who failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter on April 14.
U.S. forces have not engaged in direct combat with the insurgents since the February 29, 2020, agreement, but they provide vital air support to Afghan forces engaged in daily warfare.
But fighting between Afghan government forces and militants continues unabated on the ground despite months of talks in Qatar between the two sides.
A separate international peace conference on Afghanistan is due to take place in Turkey from April 24, but the Taliban have said it will not attend.
Washington has pressed for a conference in Turkey later this month to get the Afghan government and Taliban to agree to some form of unity interim administration and map a future for the country by consensus. But the militants have announced they will boycott the April 24 meeting in Istanbul.