Growing Relationships, Converging Interests, Refocusing Partnerships
Afghanistan-This past weekend, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin and Ashraf Ghani, President, Afghanistan, met in the presidential palace Kabul, Afghanistan to discuss the “peace process” and concerns over rising violence in the area.
Their talk came at a crucial time for the efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan. Currently, the Biden Administration is reviewing its plan for the country before a May 1 troop withdrawal deadline agreed to by Donald Trump and his Administration with the Taliban.
Biden has announced that meeting a May 1 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was “tough.”
Austin said on Twitter he had come to “listen and learn” on his first trip to the country since his appointment by Biden. “This visit has been very helpful for me, and it will inform my participation in the review we are undergoing here with [Biden],” he added.
There was no mention in the Austin-Ghani talks of the deadline.
According to The Washington Post, Austin had earlier told reporters travelling with him, “There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there is a lot of energy focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war.”
But he added that if the Trump-Taliban deadline, which is laid out in an agreement. is extended, it would not be by a “lot longer.”
On Friday, March 19, the Taliban warned of consequences if the US failed to meet the deadline. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiation team, told reporters if US troops stayed beyond May 1, “it will be a kind of violation of the agreement. That violation would not be from our side … Their violation will have a reaction.”
Omar Samad, former Afghan diplomat and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told Al Jazeera that the Taliban has always followed through with their threats and objectives and that the Pentagon has made preparations for any scenario. “At the same, we are hearing the Taliban have given the Americans a blueprint for a reduction in violence — which I think is very important.
“There are a lot of issues that can be worked out politically to avoid a war scenario, which is what the Afghan people want.”
Negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Qatar’s capital, Doha, have struggled to gain momentum and violence has risen.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has also been travelling in the region in recent weeks with proposals including an interim Afghan government and a summit in Turkey to jumpstart the peace process.
In a sharply worded letter to Ghani earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was urgent to establish peace in Afghanistan.
The US spends $4bn annually to sustain Afghanistan’s National Security Forces.
After a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers, Austin told reporters: “Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and [the] Taliban has to meet their commitments.”
India-The U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh discussed opportunities to elevate the US-India Major Defense Partnership through regional security cooperation, military-to-military interactions and defense trade.
Areas Austin and Singh agreed to work in included: information-sharing, logistics cooperation, artificial intelligence, and cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber.
Singh said the two men “reviewed the wide gamut of bilateral and multilateral exercises and agreed to pursue enhanced cooperation with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and Africa Command.”
Both men stated that the India-U.S. relationship could be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III came away from his meetings with Indian officials in New Delhi encouraged by the response from “an increasingly important partner amid today’s rapidly shifting international dynamics.”
India is a key pillar in U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The secretary stressed the U.S. commitment to allies and partners throughout the region. “It’s clear that the importance of this partnership, and its impact [on] the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India stands for “freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce and adherence to international law.”
So does the United States, Austin said. “As the world faces a global pandemic and growing challenges to an open and stable international system … it’s clear that the importance of this partnership, and its impact [on] the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead.”
The stop in India continues the Biden-Harris administration’s outreach to revitalize ties with partners and allies. India was the third country Austin visited on his first overseas trip. He met with Japanese officials, March 15-16 and South Korean leaders, March 17-18. On his way to India, Austin also spoke with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
The themes of the overall trip were focused on building U.S. partnerships across the region, a senior defense official said last weekend.