NATO defense chiefs have made “no final decision” about the alliance’s military future in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday as pressure grows on the U.S. and its allies ahead of a key May 1 deadline for withdrawal from the country.
Speaking immediately after a virtual meeting with NATO defense ministers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Mr. Stoltenberg said member nations will continue working toward a consensus on Afghanistan. The U.S. is scheduled to pull all of its remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by May 1 under the terms of a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban last year.
While the majority of the roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan are from countries other than the U.S., a full American exit would make it virtually impossible for NATO to continue its current mission.
“Defense ministers had a thorough discussion of the situation in Afghanistan. We are faced with many dilemmas and there are no easy options,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence [in Afghanistan]. But as the first of May deadline is approaching, NATO allies will continue to closely consult and coordinate in the coming weeks.”
The U.S.-led NATO effort in Afghanistan, formally known as the Resolute Support mission, has been critical to maintaining some level of stability in the chaotic country. Even as the Taliban has retaken key territory and re-emerged as a major fighting force in recent years, U.S. and NATO forces have kept the insurgent group from capturing cities and completely overrunning the nation.
There are growing fears among NATO members that May 1 withdrawal could set the stage for the Taliban to once again take control of the entire country, just as it did in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The U.S. peace deal with the Taliban laid out several key conditions that must be met before America would withdraw. They include guarantees that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorist groups and that the Taliban would engage in direct negotiations aimed at a permanent peace agreement with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
The agreement also called on the Taliban to reduce violence across the country.
Few believe the Taliban has lived up to those commitments.
“All NATO allies welcomed the agreement between the United States and Taliban last year. At the same time, we clearly stated that, of course, there are conditions in this agreement that have to be met,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “I have many times made clear that the Taliban needs to negotiate in good faith, violence has to be reduced, and the Taliban has to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups that are planning terrorist attacks on our own countries, allied countries.”