NATO will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan “before the time is right”, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said, adding that the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of a 2020 peace agreement with the United States first.
Stoltenberg’s remarks came on Monday, days before the defence ministers of the 30 NATO member states discuss the deployment on Wednesday and Thursday.
The meeting is their highest-level talks since US President Joe Biden took office promising to work closely with allies after four years of tensions under Donald Trump.
Top of the agenda for the virtual conference will be the fate of the alliance’s 9,600-strong support mission in Afghanistan after Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw troops.
The deployment’s future hinges on whether Biden agrees to stick to a May deadline to pull out foreign forces or risks a bloody backlash from the armed fighters by staying put.
“While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right,” Stoltenberg told a media conference.
“We see that there is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments … to make sure that they break all ties with international terrorists,” he said.
“Ministers will continue to assess the situation on the ground and monitor developments very closely,” he said.
“Our common goal is clear. Afghanistan should never again serve as a haven for terrorists to attack our homelands.”
Four senior NATO officials told Reuters news agency on January 31 international troops would stay beyond the May deadline, despite Taliban calls for a full withdrawal.
But defence ministers are not expected to make a concrete announcement on the deployment’s future at the meeting.
Biden’s administration says it is reviewing the deal, and the Pentagon has accused the Taliban of not fulfilling promises that include reducing attacks and cutting ties to armed groups like al-Qaeda.
NATO allies want the US to consult more closely with them after feeling sidelined when Trump cut US troop numbers to 2,500 in January, their lowest figure since the start of the war in 2001.
Taliban violence has surged in recent months amid stuttering peace talks with the Afghan government. The group has warned NATO ministers not to seek a “continuation of occupation and war”.
A study mandated by the US Congress has called for a delay in the pullout, warning it would effectively hand the Taliban a victory.
Many fear that progress during 20 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan would quickly unravel, threatening gains in areas from women’s rights to democracy.
US lawmakers have warned that withdrawing all troops could lead to civil war.