WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Kabul on Thursday to show support for the Afghan government a day after U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he was pulling out U.S. forces after nearly 20 years of war.
Biden’s decision precipitated a decision by NATO allies to withdraw their troops as well, even as the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani remains embroiled in fierce fighting with Taliban insurgents and a U.S.-backed peace process shrouded in uncertainty.
The foreign troop withdrawals have raised concerns that the country could erupt in full-scale civil war, providing al Qaeda space in which to rebuild and plan new attacks on U.S. and other targets.
Blinken, arriving in Kabul after attending NATO talks in Brussels, met with Ghani at the presidential palace after first greeting U.S. soldiers at the heavily fortified American embassy.
“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 said at the embassy, according to a press pool report.
At the palace, he assured Ghani that “the partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”
He apparently was referring to Biden’s assurances that the United States would support the Afghan government through diplomacy and financial assistance and remain engaged in efforts to secure a peace accord with Taliban Islamists.
Blinken also met with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, who expressed support for the U.S. decision.
“This does not mean the end of relations and cooperation between the two countries. A new chapter of relations and cooperation between the two countries has returned and we will continue our cooperation in various fields in this chapter,” Abdullah said in a statement.
Biden said on Wednesday that U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan starting May 1 and would be gone before Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that triggered the U.S.-led invasion.
Foreign troops under NATO command will also withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with the U.S. pull-out, NATO allies agreed. The withdrawal of foreign troops will be completed by Sept. 11.
Even as Blinken visited Kabul, the Taliban reiterated a call for an “immediate” withdrawal of all foreign forces, accusing Washington of breaching a February 2020 accord – secured by the Trump administration – to complete a U.S. troop pullout by May 1.
The Taliban statement appeared to make an implicit threat, warning that “in principle” their fighters would “take every necessary countermeasure, hence the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences.”
They also said they will “under no circumstance ever relent” on their goal of establishing a “pure Islamic system,” underscoring a deep difference with Kabul over the kind of governmental system that should be established in a peace agreement.
Some U.S. officials and experts are concerned about the enduring presence in Afghanistan of al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists, worried that the former will be able to rebuild and plot new attacks on Western targets.
Speaking on Thursday to CNN, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, conceded that the U.S. withdrawal would result in less intelligence. But, he said, the United States still would be able to detect threats to the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan.
“Our ability to protect the American homeland in my view will not diminish,” Sullivan said. “Our ability to collect intelligence on a day-to-day basis, against the comings and goings of actors within Afghanistan, will diminish. That’s a big difference.”
“From our perspective, we can set up the kind of scenario in which we can protect this country without remaining at war in Afghanistan for the third decade,” Sullivan said.
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