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Defense Secretary Austin Makes Unannounced Visit To Afghanistan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan while on a regional tour of Asia. His visit comes just days after President Biden indicated his administration was unlikely to meet a May 1 deadline for all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. The U.S. agreed to that in a deal with the Taliban last year. Today, Austin told reporters a review is underway of American options in the country.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: I'm here to listen and learn. And this has been very helpful to me, and it'll inform my participation in the review that we're undergoing here with the president.

MARTIN: Here to tell us more is NPR's Diaa Hadid. She covers Afghanistan from her base in neighboring Pakistan. Diaa Hadid, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Diaa, Secretary Austin's visit was kept under wraps, but what seems to be the context?

HADID: Well, it appears that the defense secretary wanted to see the situation for himself in Afghanistan as the Biden administration figures out what to do next because effectively here, the United States is at a fork in the road. It's got a few thousand forces left in Afghanistan and those serving with NATO.

It's not a lot, but withdrawing those final forces carries a great deal of risk, especially without a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban because if they withdraw like that, it could cause the country to collapse deeper into war. Or it could turn Afghanistan again into a security vortex, where militants could plan attacks against the United States and our allies.

But here's the rub. If the United States doesn't withdrawal on deadline, the Taliban has promised consequences. And that could include attacking foreign forces again. They haven't done that for over a year now, since the United States and the Taliban signed that withdrawal agreement.

MARTIN: So you were telling us that Afghanistan could plunge deeper into chaos - that's the upshot - without a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. So what's the progress on that?

HADID: Well, if I could just step back for a second, Michel, because it's important to unspool why a peace deal is important beyond just sounding really nice - right? - peace. But it's a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban that will be effectively a power-sharing agreement. It should bring the Taliban into government, and it should resolve what to do with thousands of battle-hardened fighters and militants.

So a peace deal means the United States can leave with a structure in place that ostensibly keeps the country together. Any deal will probably be quite fragile because Afghanistan's been at war now for four decades. But it appears that's what the Biden administration is trying to do. It's pushing hard to see if it can get at least a tentative deal into place before they withdraw.

MARTIN: How is the administration pushing? What are the efforts they're making?

HADID: It's been such a hefty diplomatic push in the past few weeks. Consider just the past few days and looking forward a bit into the future. On Thursday, Moscow held a daylong meeting on Afghan peace talks that was attended by a U.S. envoy and all the Afghan parties. Next week, the foreign ministers of NATO countries will get together. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is expected to be there and probably to try to build consensus on a way forward. There's another Afghan peace conference expected in Istanbul in early April. And the U.N.'s appointed an envoy for Afghan peace, and that's likely to help troubleshoot the process.

MARTIN: Has that push led to any tangible progress so far?

HADID: So far, it's actually hard to tell. I spoke to a senior Taliban official after the Moscow meeting, and he said, yeah, they were committed to speeding up negotiations. They wanted to discuss key issues like governance. On the government side, though, two negotiators we spoke to said there hadn't been any tangible progress. But one of them, Habiba Sarabi, said she was actually optimistic that all these efforts to speed up the talks would help both sides get to a peace agreement sooner rather than later.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Diaa Hadid speaking to us from her base in Pakistan. Diaa Hadid, thank you so much for joining us.

HADID: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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