ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan need to do more to meet the terms of a 2020 peace deal with the United States to allow for all international forces to leave the country by a May deadline.
Stoltenberg spoke to reporters in Brussels ahead of a meeting later this week of allied defense ministers where the future of a NATO presence in Afghanistan will be discussed in line with the February 29 U.S.-Taliban agreement.
The NATO chief, however, cautioned against staging an abrupt foreign troop withdrawal, saying it could again turn Afghanistan into a haven for international terrorists.
“There is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments, including the commitment to break ties to not provide any support for terrorist organizations,” Stoltenberg argued.
“So, our presence is conditions-based. While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right,” he stressed. “We need to find the right balance between making sure that we not stay longer than necessary, but at the same time, that we don't leave too early.”
The deal signed under former U.S. President Donald Trump helped launch the first direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government last September. It has allowed Washington to reduce the number of U.S. forces in the country to 2,500 from nearly 13,000 a year ago.
But Afghanistan has lately experienced a spike in violence, prompting U.S. President Joe Biden to review the deal to examine whether the insurgents are complying with their commitments and whether to close what has been the longest overseas U.S. military intervention.
The U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers and cost Washington nearly $1 trillion.
Stoltenberg echoed the U.S.’s skepticism about the Taliban’s intentions to end hostilities.
“Peace talks remain fragile, and the level of violence remains unacceptably high, including Taliban attacks on civilians," Stoltenberg said. “The Taliban must reduce violence, negotiate in good faith and live up to their commitment to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups.”
Afghan leaders have alleged the Taliban are dragging their feet in the peace talks because the insurgents plan to seize power through military means once all U.S.-led foreign forces withdraw from the country.
The Taliban have repeatedly rejected allegations they are not complying with their obligations outlined in the agreement with the U.S. They have warned against abandoning the February 29 accord, saying it would lead to a “dangerous escalation” in the nearly 20-year-old war.
In a statement issued ahead of the NATO ministerial conference, the Islamist group insisted their fighters were not launching new offensives and instead were taking “only defensive" actions to guard Taliban-held territory against attacks from U.S.-backed Afghan security forces.
“Our message to the upcoming NATO ministerial meeting is that the continuation of occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people. Anyone seeking extension of wars and occupation will be held liable for it just like the previous two decades,” the Taliban said.