Pentagon seeks to reassure Afghan leaders as pullout proceeds

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will try to reassure visiting Afghan government leaders of U.S. military support even as the Taliban insurgents score battlefield gains and the U.S. troop pullout picks up pace, the Pentagon said Thursday.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Friday will meet Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after talks with President Biden at the White House. Also attending the meeting will be the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah. 

Secretary Austin will highlight the “enduring commitment” of the United States to the people of Afghanistan and the goal to ensure that the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups, said John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman.

“The United States is going to remain committed to the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” Mr. Kirby said. “Our diplomatic presence is going to remain there. The programs and policies that we’re implementing in Afghanistan are still going to stay.”

The discussion at the Pentagon will focus on what financial support Afghanistan can expect to receive following the U.S. withdrawal from the country in early September. U.S. intelligence reports and private military analysts say the Taliban have made major territorial gains since President Trump first started drawing down U.S. forces last year, and there are rising doubts the Kabul government can survive on its own.

Mr. Ghani will likely ask the U.S. to slow down the pace of withdrawal to give his troops more time to prepare for the September deadline, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center think tank.

“While Kabul has accepted the fact that the U.S. forces are leaving, it’s tough to swallow given that the withdrawal is playing out against an unprecedented Taliban offensive,” Mr. Kugelman said. “In reality, there’s little the Americans can do. They’re on their way out and an agreement with the Taliban limits their options for targeting the insurgents on the battlefield.”

But there was no sign Mr. Biden was backing away for his September 11 deadline for a full U.S. pullout, and U.S. officials say the withdrawal may be completed even before then.

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