Biden wants to explore keeping U.S. counter-terrorism troops in Afghanistan: top lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration is looking to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past a May 1 deadline while exploring a deal in which the Taliban would allow a U.S. counter-terrorism force to remain as they confront their Islamic State foes, a top U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: An armoured vehicle patrols near the side of an incident where two U.S soldiers were killed a day before in Shirzad district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan February 9, 2020.REUTERS/Parwiz

House of Representatives Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith’s comments provided new details of U.S. President Joe Biden’s conduct of the Afghanistan peace process that he inherited from the Trump administration.

The State Department referred questions to the White House. The White House and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment. U.S. officials have said Biden has made no decision on the deadline to withdraw the last U.S. troops from America’s longest war.

Biden has said it would be “tough” to meet the deadline here set in a February 2020 deal struck with the Taliban.

Addressing an online Foreign Policy magazine forum, Smith said he spoke to national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about the withdrawal.

“I think there’s a general feeling that May 1 is too soon, just logistically,” he said. “We’ve got ... closer to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan. Our allies have around 7,000.”

“You cannot pull out 10,000-plus troops in any sort of way in six weeks,” he said. He added the administration’s “job one” is talking to the Taliban about allowing the U.S.-led force to remain for a little longer.

He noted the Taliban demand that all foreign troops leave. If that remains their position, he said, “I don’t see that we have much choice but to leave,” including counter-terrorism forces.

“What the Biden administration wants to do is negotiate past May 1 and then at least explore the option: has the Taliban changed their mind as they ... are fighting ISIS (Islamic State) almost as much as they are fighting the Afghan government,” Smith continued.

“Might their position change about a U.S. presence? I doubt it. But I think the administration is thinking it’s worth the conversation,” he said.

The Taliban has been fighting Islamic State’s local affiliate, and U.S. airstrikes on ISIS have proved critical to helping them rout their rivals.

But, experts say, Islamic State remains a serious threat.

The Taliban have indicated they will resume attacking foreign forces if Biden fails to meet the May 1 deadline, and some experts doubt they would allow any U.S. force to stay.

Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and Humyera Pamuk; editing by Grant McCool