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Blinken visits Afghanistan in show of support after Biden announces withdrawal

Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk

By Jonathan Landay and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Kabul on Thursday to show support for the Afghan government and civil society a day after President Joe Biden said he was pulling out American forces after nearly 20 years of war.

Biden said U.S. objectives in Afghanistan had become "increasingly unclear" over the past decade and set a deadline for withdrawing all U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, exactly two decades after al Qaeda's attacks on the United States that triggered the war.

Foreign troops under NATO command will also withdraw from Afghanistan in coordination with the U.S. pullout.

Blinken, arriving in Kabul after attending NATO talks in Brussels, met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government remains embroiled in fierce fighting with Taliban insurgents while a U.S.-backed peace process is shrouded in uncertainty.

The top U.S. diplomat tried to reassure Ghani that despite the departure of U.S. troops, the United States would remain committed to Afghanistan, saying Washington will "intensify" its diplomacy to do "everything we can" to advance efforts to secure a peace agreement between Kabul and the insurgents.

"The reason I'm here, so quickly after the president's speech last night, is to demonstrate literally, by our presence, that we have an enduring an ongoing commitment to Afghanistan," Blinken said at the embassy, according to a press pool report.

The foreign troop withdrawals have raised concerns that the country could erupt in full-scale civil war, providing al Qaeda space in which to rebuild and plan new attacks on U.S. and other targets.

Nor have the Taliban renounced their goal of reinstating Islamist rule, fueling fears they would reverse gains in women's rights, education, independent media and other areas if they return to power.

During his eight-hour visit, Blinken met with advocates of women's rights, disability rights, youth and media freedom, who "shared their concerns about the Taliban's intent as well as a strong desire for peace," a State Department statement said.

During a press conference at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy, Blinken said Washington will continue its humanitarian support to Afghanistan and advocacy for the rights of women and girls.

In his meeting with Ghani, Blinken assured the Afghan president that "the partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring."

At his press conference at the embassy, where earlier he had greeted U.S. soldiers, Blinken warned the Taliban that any attack on American troops as they pulled out would be met with "a very forceful response."

He also met with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, who expressed support for the U.S. decision.

"This does not mean the end of relations and cooperation between the two countries. A new chapter of relations and cooperation between the two countries has returned and we will continue our cooperation in various fields in this chapter," Abdullah said in a statement.

IMPLICIT THREAT

Even as Blinken visited Kabul, the Taliban reiterated a call for an "immediate" withdrawal of all foreign forces, accusing Washington of breaching a February 2020 accord - secured by the Trump administration - to complete a U.S. troop pullout by May 1.

The Taliban statement appeared to make an implicit threat, warning that "in principle" their fighters would "take every necessary countermeasure, hence the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences."

They also said they will "under no circumstance ever relent" on their goal of establishing a "pure Islamic system," underscoring a deep difference with Kabul over the kind of governmental system that should be established in a peace agreement.

As the fate of the peace talks remained uncertain, with the Taliban saying they would not attend a planned conference in Turkey until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan, Blinken remained hopeful.

"We're waiting to see a definitive response form the Taliban about their participation," he said. "The goal is ... to accelerate the peace process. The gathering will be supported by high-level attendance from the international community."

Some U.S. officials and experts are concerned about the enduring presence in Afghanistan of al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists, worried that the former will be able to rebuild and plot new attacks on Western targets.

Speaking to CNN, Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, conceded that the U.S. withdrawal would result in less intelligence. But, he said, the United States still would be able to detect threats to the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan.

"Our ability to protect the American homeland in my view will not diminish," Sullivan said. "Our ability to collect intelligence on a day-to-day basis, against the comings and goings of actors within Afghanistan, will diminish. That's a big difference."

"From our perspective, we can set up the kind of scenario in which we can protect this country without remaining at war in Afghanistan for the third decade."

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces. A U.S.-backed government has held power since then, although the Taliban have control over wide areas of the country.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by Sabine Siebold, Nick Macfie and Daniel Wallis)