US defence secretary Lloyd Austin reassures Nato allies on Afghanistan and Iraq

Lloyd Austin says any withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be ‘hasty'

(FILES) In this file photo US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a visit by US President Joe Biden to the Pentagon in Washington, DC, February 10, 2021. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin  will this week reaffirm Washington's commitment to NATO and reassure allies they will be consulted on important decisions, hoping to turn the page on four years of withering criticism from former president Donald Trump. NATO defense ministers are meeting virtually Wednesday and Thursday, and the new Pentagon chief will send "a supportive message ... about how relevant NATO is," his spokesman John Kirby said. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin reassured Nato allies this week that the country “will not undertake a hasty or disorderedly withdrawal from Afghanistan” regardless of whether President Joe Biden plans to adhere to the May 1 withdrawal deadline under last year’s agreement with the Taliban.

“I told our allies that no matter what the outcome of our review, the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s reputation at risk,” Gen Austin told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday during his first-ever press briefing after virtually attending the annual Nato defence ministerial.

“At this time, no decisions about our future force posture have been made. In the meantime, the current mission will continue, and of course commanders have the right and the responsibility to defend themselves and their fighting partners against attack.”

Former president Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban in Qatar last year paved the way for negotiations aimed at withdrawing US troops and establishing a peace process in the country.

Mr Trump reduced troop numbers in the country from 4,500 to 2,500 shortly after losing the election to President Joe Biden in November. Nato also has about 10,000 troops in the country, including Americans, to train and advise Afghan security forces.

The remaining 2,500 troops are scheduled to leave by May 1 under the Doha agreement.

But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has said that the Taliban has failed to keep its end of the bargain, which requires it to cut ties with Al Qaeda and end terrorist attacks.

“We are mindful of the looming deadlines, but we want to do this methodically and deliberately, and I certainly won’t get before any decisions now, nor will I preview the advice that I plan to give the president,” said Gen Austin.

“We’re really focused on making sure that the negotiation process takes place, as it should. And hopefully, the parties will abide by their commitments that they made at the outset of the negotiations, and you can bring the level of violence down.”

The congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group released its final report this month, which advised against sticking to the May deadline for US troop withdrawal unless the Taliban kept its end of the Doha agreement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed President Ashraf Ghani on the Biden administration's Afghanistan strategy review on Thursday.

In addition to Afghanistan, the US has another 2,500 soldiers stationed in Iraq – another topic of discussion between Gen Austin and US allies at the Nato ministerial.

“On Iraq, I reiterated our strong commitment to the defeat of ISIS and to supporting Iraq’s long-term security, stability and prosperity,” said Gen Austin. “That’s a commitment that I made to my Iraqi counterpart and the Iraqi minister of interior just the other day after last week’s deadly rocket attack in Erbil.”

An Iran-backed militia called Saraya Awliya Al Dam has claimed responsibility for the rocket attack near the Erbil airport that killed one US civilian contractor and injured seven others.

“I also welcome the expanded Nato mission in Iraq that responds to the desires and aspirations of the Iraqi government,” said Gen Austin.

Mr Biden has made it a priority to repair relations with Washington’s allies after they came under considerable strain during the Trump administration.