NATO sources say that international peacekeepers currently stationed in Afghanistan may stay beyond the May deadline to leave the country, in spite of the United States’ deal with the Taliban to withdraw from the almost two-decades-long war that has ravaged the central Asian nation.
According to Reuters, four senior NATO officials said that the move to keep the U.S. and allied troops stationed in Afghanistan could escalate tensions with the Taliban, who are expecting a full withdrawal of international forces.
“There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” said an official who spoke to Reuters under the condition of anonymity. “Conditions have not been met. And with the new U.S. administration, there will be tweaks in the policy, the sense of hasty withdrawal which was prevalent will be addressed and we could see a much more calculated exit strategy.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in early 2020 agreeing to a full withdrawal of troops by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban would fulfill certain security guarantees. The move was largely hailed as a win for conservatives fatigued by the war that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City by Al-Qaeda forces that were given safe harbour by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Trump reduced U.S. troops in the country to a low of 2,500 in January 2021, the fewest since 2001. However, the Biden administration has given no indication that it plans to follow through on Trump’s efforts to withdraw U.S. forces completely.
According to Reuters, plans on what will happen after April are currently under review and likely to be a top issue at a NATO meeting in February.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has found renewed importance under the Biden administration after being sidelined for years by former President Trump, whose focus on an “America First” policy prompted the United States to reduce its involvement in NATO activities.
“No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.
NATO insists that efforts in Afghanistan should be focused on peace rather than war.
“NATO fully supports the Afghanistan peace process in order to ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists that would attack our homelands,” said Lungescu, who noted that as many as 10,000 international troops remain in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government in Kabul disagrees with the pullout, saying that the Taliban has failed to meet conditions stipulated in its agreement with the former U.S. administration, escalated violence with state militia and failed to cut its ties to terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. The Taliban denies these accusations.
President Joe Biden’s administration has launched a review of Trump’s peace agreement and has not made any commitments to fulfilling it, as the Taliban has failed to meet their end of the bargain. However, a Pentagon spokesperson said that Washington remains committed to the process and has not made any decisions on future troop levels.
A State Department representative said that the Biden administration is committed to bringing a “responsible end to the ‘forever wars’... while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.”