Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Afghanistan on Thursday for a surprise visit less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by Sept. 11 of this year.
While in Kabul, Blinken met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation, as well as members of Afghan civil society.
“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 as he met Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul.
“The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring.”
The secretary of state also met with American soldiers at the U.S. embassy. “What you and your predecessors did over the last 20 years is really extraordinary,” he told them.
“I’m in constant awe of what you’ve achieved," he added.
Ghani said Thursday that he respects the U.S. decision to withdraw and expressed gratitude for the sacrifice U.S. forces had made fighting "shoulder to shoulder" with Afghan troops.
U.S. efforts to reassure Afghan leadership in the wake of the announcement were "heartening to us," he said, "as is your visit today."
"I would like to thank you for the opportunity today to allow us to frame our future."
Blinken and Ghani "discussed our shared investment in Afghanistan and the importance of preserving the gains of the last twenty years, especially in building a strong civil society and protecting the rights of women and girls," state department spokesperson Ned Price said.
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Other prominent Afghan government officials struck a more concerned note.
Mir Rahman Rahmani, speaker of the Afghan Parliament, said Wednesday that while the country's people want to see foreign forces leave, “the conditions are not met for that to happen yet.”
“It is possible that Afghanistan turns into another civil war or becomes a haven for international terrorist organizations,” he warned in a speech on the parliamentary floor.
In the wake of Biden's decision, the Taliban said they will not participate in any negotiations on the future of Afghanistan until all foreign troops have withdrawn.
In a statement on Thursday, the group said Biden's decision to delay the withdrawal was a “clear violation” of the agreement they reached with the U.S. last year.
"As the agreement is being breached by America, it in principle opens the way," it said, for the group "to take every necessary countermeasure."
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban that foreign troops would leave Afghanistan by May 1 in exchange for their commitment to both disavow Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as well as enter into peace talks with an Afghan delegation.
Intra-Afghan negotiations have continued for months in Doha, Qatar. Turkey announced earlier this week that representatives of both the Afghan government and the insurgent group would meet in Istanbul later this month to accelerate the discussions.
Biden announced Wednesday that all U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan in time for the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that triggered America’s invasion of the country.
"I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats," Biden said. "I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth."
"It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home."
Biden said that the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to Afghan forces. The U.S. will also continue diplomatic and humanitarian work in the country and will support the peace talks.
CIA director William Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday that America's ability to contain the terrorist threat from Afghanistan has "benefited greatly" from the presence of U.S. and coalition forces.
“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said.
As part of their agreement with the U.S., the Taliban also committed to a reduction in violence. But fighting has continued despite the talks and civilian casualties and apolitical assassinations have surged.
Speaking in Brussels before his arrival in Kabul, Blinken warned that the Taliban has a choice to make if it wants international recognition or support.
Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with NATO officials in the Belgian capital, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirming the alliance would also be withdrawing.
NATO currently has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than 7,000 of which are non-U.S. forces.
With boots on the ground for nearly two decades, around 2,300 U.S. troops have lost their lives in the country and more than 20,000 have been wounded in what many have referred to as a “forever” war.
More than 100,000 thousand Afghan civilians have also been killed or injured in the fighting since the U.S. invaded in 2001.
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