Senior NATO officials have revealed that international troops will stay in Afghanistan past May, despite a U.S.-Taliban deal which had guaranteed a full withdrawal by the end of April 2021. Speaking to Reuters, one anonymous NATO official disclosed that “conditions have not been met” to allow for a full withdrawal within the previously stated timeframe. As a result, both Afghan and global security could not be ensured without continued international military presence. Although NATO have not released an official statement, these latest revelations are in line with the claims made by NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, on 29th January, that NATO was “very much interested in continuing” its mission in Afghanistan. The news creates yet another setback for Afghanistan and the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban that began in September last year.
In early 2020, Donald Trump’s U.S. administration signed an agreement with the Afghan Taliban ensuring the withdrawal of international troops by May 2021, provided security guarantees were met. However, a NATO official told Reuters at the end of January 2021, that “there will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end.” Official channels were less forthcoming but did not run counter to these claims. NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, was keen to remind stakeholders that NATO’s mission was very much ‘conditions-based’ and constantly being assessed. The news will cause disquiet amongst the Taliban who, according to Reuters, are becoming increasingly concerned that troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond May.
These comments, made by key NATO figures, highlight just how little progress has been made in Afghanistan since peace talks began last year. Violence in the country has remained endemic in recent months, despite the U.S.-Taliban deal requiring an end to all attacks and a promise to not allow al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in Taliban-controlled areas. Although continued NATO interventions will anger Taliban leaders, it is clear that the group has not held up its side of the bargain in curbing violence and indiscriminate attacks. Removing international troops from the country will be a key step forward, but it is clear that without greater security assurance, a May withdrawal could prove disastrous.
NATO’s decision is also reflective of the change in U.S. administration which took place on 20th January. Undoubtably, the arrival of Joe Biden in The White House opens a chapter of greater co-operation between the U.S. and NATO, following the snubbing of the organization by the outgoing president. It is likely the U.S. will now work more closely with NATO, avoiding gung-ho tactics which threaten Afghan security. The anonymous NATO source emphasized how ‘a much more calculated exit strategy’ was required to avoid a ‘hasty withdrawal’ in a country plagued by violence for over forty years.
NATO must continue to work towards the removal of the 10,000 international troops currently serving in Afghanistan, but it cannot be done in a way that jeopardizes the safety of Afghan civilians. A continued international presence will thwart Taliban ambitions, but is a natural result of the continued violence over the past year. The Taliban must look to work co-operatively with the Afghan government and international community to bring about an end to violence, rather than using it as a bargaining chip in the increasingly fractious talks. Regardless, Afghanistan is set to be high on the agenda when NATO defence ministers meet on the 17th and 18th of February.
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