Defense secretary visits Afghanistan as US considers troop extension

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Afghanistan on his first visit to the country as the United States' top defense official. Austin is seen here before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. By Jamie Crawford, National Security Producer

(CNN) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Afghanistan Sunday on his first visit to the country as the United States' top defense official, meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other officials.

Austin landed in Kabul Sunday morning for a previously unannounced visit after a stop in India, according to the press pool traveling with the secretary.

The defense secretary's visit comes as the United States must decide whether it will adhere to an agreement the Trump administration reached last year with the Taliban to remove all US forces from the country by May 1. The Biden administration is considering a six-month extension for American troops there as that deadline draws near.

Austin had told reporters in New Delhi on Saturday that "to my knowledge," President Joe Biden "has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he'll decide to remove" US troops from Afghanistan.

"There is a rigorous process that's ongoing as the President really works his way through making that decision and no decisions have been made. No decisions on length of stay or troop numbers have been made to this point," Austin said.

In brief comments to reporters on Sunday, Austin said he had a "very helpful" meeting with Ghani, US Ambassador Ross Wilson and Gen. Scott Miller, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The defense secretary traveled to the country to "listen and learn," he said.

Austin, asked by reporters if the Taliban have met the commitments made in their deal with the United States to assure a US withdrawal, said he "did not care to comment" on the subject, then added: "It's obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country. We'd really like to see that violence come down. And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work."

CNN reported earlier this month that as the Biden administration looks to complete the drawdown and remove the remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, it will require a massive effort to either remove or destroy weapons, equipment, and facilities that could fall into the hands of the Taliban, according to several defense officials.

Austin was careful not to overshadow the White House on Sunday, saying "in terms of an end date, or setting a specific date for withdrawal, that's, that's the domain of my boss ... you know the decision that the President will make at some point in time, in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward."

"I will continue to participate in a very meaningful way in a review that's ongoing," he added.

This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.

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