NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on February 17 that the military alliance will only leave Afghanistan when security conditions allow, as a deadline for withdrawing troops set out in a peace deal with the Taliban nears.
NATO has just under 10,000 troops in the war-ravaged country helping to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Only about 2,500 of them are U.S. forces, but the allies could not continue the NATO operation if American transport, logistics, and other support are withdrawn.
President Joe Biden is reviewing his predecessor’s 2020 deal with the Taliban, which includes a May 1 deadline for a final U.S. troop withdrawal. In Washington, calls are mounting for the United States to delay the final exit or renegotiate the deal to allow the presence of a smaller, intelligence-based American force. The bipartisan experts group, the Afghan Study Group, recommended delaying the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan earlier this month, based on a judgement that the Taliban have not fulfilled the conditions set within the February 2020 deal.
Violence is spiking in Afghanistan and culprits include the Taliban, the Islamic State group, warlords, and criminal gangs.
“Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions based, and Taliban has to meet their commitments,” Stoltenberg told reporters after chairing a meeting of NATO defense ministers, including new U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“The main issue is that Taliban has to reduce violence, Taliban has to negotiate in good faith and Taliban has to stop supporting international terrorist groups like al-Qaida,” Stoltenberg said.
“We will only leave when the time is right and the focus now is how we can we support the peace talks,” he said, referring to slow-moving negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government, which began last year in Qatar.
None of the 30 NATO member governments has publicly argued that security conditions are right for a withdrawal, and several allies would probably support a longer stay if the United States requests it.
The defense ministers are due to discuss Afghanistan more broadly on Thursday. But with the U.S. review ongoing it’s unlikely that any firm decision on the future of NATO’s operation will be made. That could come when foreign ministers next meet, in mid-March.
NATO took control of international security operations in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban for harboring former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. It’s the military alliance’s longest, costliest, and most ambitious operation ever.
By the Associated Press in Brussels with additional reporting by The Diplomat.