After NATO meeting, defence secretary says ‘no decision’ on troop withdrawal, calls for progress in peace talks
President Joe Biden said in a television interview it will be “tough” for the United States to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in six weeks under an agreement negotiated by his predecessor with the Taliban.
“I’m in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave,” Biden told ABC News in an interview aired on Wednesday.
A May 1 deadline to end the US’s longest war was set under an agreement reached by former President Donald Trump and the Taliban, without the buy-in of the Afghan government in February 2020. Biden criticised Trump’s deal with the Taliban as “not very solidly negotiated”.
The deal mandated a series of steps to be taken by the Taliban in conjunction with a reduction in US troops, including cutting ties with fighter groups, reducing violence in Afghanistan and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the elected Afghan government.
The US has reduced its troop numbers, but US and NATO officials have expressed doubt the Taliban has upheld its part of the deal.
The Taliban issued an open letter last month calling on the US to pull out its troops.
“We’re in consultation with our allies as well as the government and that decision is in process now,” Biden said.
He said that decision will not take “a lot longer”.
Biden’s comments come a day before a meeting in Moscow designed to restart peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will attend the conference on March 18 and the Taliban plans to send a 10-person, high-level delegation led by chief negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month outlined a US proposal for talks between Afghan parties and the Taliban on a transitional government.
Muhammad Naim, a Taliban spokesman, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the group did not believe a transitional government could manage the country’s challenges.
A top US official working on Afghanistan warned Congress on March 16 that a withdrawal of US troops and financial aid from the country without a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban would be “a disaster”.
“The Afghan government would probably lose the capability of flying any of its aircraft within a few months and, to be quite blunt, would probably face collapse,” John Sopko, the US Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House of Representatives committee.
Since the agreement between the US and the Taliban was signed, there has been a spike in violence and a rise in civilian casualties. Government, civil society figures, journalists and political moderates have been assassinated.
The Western-backed government in Kabul receives 80 percent of its annual funding from the US and other nations, Sopko said.
International annual development aid to Afghanistan has decreased from a high of $6.7bn in 2011, hitting $4.2bn in 2019, according to World Bank data.
Since 2002, the US has spent $143bn on reconstruction in Afghanistan, including $88bn for training and support of the Afghan army.
Biden, like his predecessor, has promised to end the nearly 20-year conflict and bring home more than 2,500 American soldiers in the country — down from about 13,000 a year ago.
Roughly 7,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan rely on the US for logistics and security support.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, after meeting NATO allies in Brussels on the situation in Afghanistan last month, urged the Taliban to stop its attacks. Austin said the US was consulting closely with NATO allies its troop withdrawal plans.