Key Western defense officials appear to be signaling that a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan will not permit for the withdrawal of some 10,000 troops under the terms of a deal signed with the Taliban last February.
NATO and the United States are facing a May 1 deadline to pull their forces from Afghanistan, but the alliance’s top official used the start of a two-day virtual meeting of the defense ministers Wednesday to push back against any set timeline.
“The problem is, to leave Afghanistan is conditions-based. Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. “[The] Taliban has to meet their commitments.”
Specifically, Stoltenberg said the Taliban need to show they have been negotiating in good faith and take steps to reduce the level of violence across the country. He also said the Taliban need to “stop supporting international terrorist groups like al-Qaida.”
In recent days, Taliban officials have publicly argued that they have fulfilled terms of the February 2020 deal – an assertion backed by top Russian diplomats.
But intelligence in a new report from the U.S. Defense Department casts doubts on such claims.
“The Taliban continues to maintain relations with al-Qaida,” Defense Department acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in the report released Wednesday, citing intelligence that members of al-Qaida and its affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), have been integrated into the Taliban’s command and control structure.
O’Donnell also accused the Taliban of negotiating in bad faith, writing its commanders are “employing violence across the country in a strategic effort to increase its leverage.”
Other U.S. officials have likewise sought to tamp down expectations that a complete withdrawal of the 2,500 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan is imminent.
“First of all, we want to assess the agreement itself. We weren't in the seat when that agreement was signed,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday of the deal signed under the direction of former U.S. President Donald Trump.
“We want to take a look at the compliance mechanisms of it,” Kirby added about the review initiated by U.S. President Joe Biden. “All of that will help inform … what the conditions ought to be when we say any withdrawal will be conditions based.”
NATO defense ministers are expecting to consult in more detail on the next steps in Afghanistan on Thursday, the second day of the virtual two-day conference.
The Taliban warned NATO in a statement on Saturday against seeking a “continuation of war” that they say does not serve the interests of any of the parties involved in the nearly 20-year conflict.
“Anyone seeking extension of wars and occupation will be held liable for it just like the previous two decades,” the statement said.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer warned that peace talks have not progressed enough to allow a withdrawal of NATO troops.
“This means we will have to prepare for a changing security situation and a rising threat to both international troops and our own soldiers,” she said in a statement.
VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this story.