WASHINGTON - NATO defense ministers wrapped up a two-day, virtual meeting Thursday, refusing to commit to a deadline to withdraw forces from Afghanistan by May 1, as required by last year’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
Instead, the alliance called upon the Taliban to negotiate in “good faith” and said NATO members would continue to consult about possible next steps, holding out hope talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government may be able to produce a lasting peace.
“We are faced with the many dilemmas and there are no easy options,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, saying no decision has been made.
“If we stay beyond the first of May, we risk more violence, we risk more attacks against our own troops, and we risk, of course, also to be part of a continued presence in Afghanistan that will be difficult,” he said. “But if we leave, then we also risk that the gains we have made are lost and that Afghanistan again could become a safe haven for international terrorists.”
Stoltenberg also warned the Taliban against launching their traditional spring offensive, which usually begins sometime in March, after the top U.S. general in Afghanistan indicated preparations for the military campaign may be under way.
“Any increase in violence will undermine the peace efforts,” he said. “We are actually expecting the opposite. We are, we are expecting that the Taliban reduces violence and by that demonstrating faith in the peace negotiations.”
General Scott Miller, the head of U.S. forces and the NATO-led noncombat Resolute Support mission, told the Reuters news agency this week that despite the May 1 deadline, Taliban violence has been “much higher than historical norms.”
“It just doesn’t create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan,” Miller said.
Taliban, Russian claims
Despite such concerns, Taliban officials, in recent days, have publicly argued that they have fulfilled terms of the February 2020 deal with the United States.
In an open letter posted online earlier this week, top Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged the U.S. “to remain committed to the full implementation” of the February 2020 deal.
Russia, on Wednesday, backed the Taliban’s claims.
“The Taliban adhere to the agreement almost flawlessly — not a single American soldier has died since the agreement was signed — which cannot be said about the Americans,” Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, was quoted as saying by the state-owned Sputnik News Agency.
However, Stoltenberg Thursday said NATO forces have been closely monitoring conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, indicating the Taliban’s compliance with the terms of the agreement are in doubt.
"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, on allied countries,” he said. “This has been conveyed many times.”
There are about 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including 2,500 from the United States — down sharply from the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan a decade ago.
But the prospect of a complete withdrawal has raised concerns by some Afghan officials, something that has not gone unnoticed by U.S. officials.
In a statement following the NATO ministerial Thursday, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “reassured allies that the U.S. would not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
“And he made clear that he is committed to consulting with allies and partners throughout this process,” it said.
In a call Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken likewise sought to assure Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Washington does not intend to leave Afghanistan in turmoil.
"The secretary reiterated America’s commitment to support the peace process, aiming for a just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive cease-fire," the State Department said in a readout of the call on Thursday.
Sediq Sediqqi, a former Afghan presidential spokesman and now the deputy minister of interior affairs, tweeted Thursday that NATO’s refusal to withdraw early, in accordance with Taliban demands, was a “significant step.”
“It means that the Taliban can not [sic] get away with the violence,” Sediqi wrote. “It means the game has rules. It means no more concessions will be awarded.”
It is a significant decision and a major step. It means that the Taliban can not get away with the violence. It means the game has rules. It means no more concessions will be awarded. Taliban must adhere to a real peace process that will end their violence and terrorism. https://t.co/pmdqL4xNWy— Sediq Sediqqi (@SediqSediqqi) February 18, 2021
Negotiating in good faith
Despite cautious optimism by NATO and Afghan officials to the U.S. approach, there is also more reason to worry, with many pointing to a growing collection of intelligence that raises doubts about the Taliban’s desire to live up to the agreement with the U.S. and about its intentions regarding ongoing talks with the Afghan government.
“The Taliban views the negotiations with the Afghan Islamic Republic negotiating team as necessary to ensure U.S. forces leave Afghanistan,” U.S. Defense Department Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in a report released Wednesday, citing U.S. defense intelligence.
O’Donnell additionally 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.”
The intelligence has some former officials and experts questioning whether the U.S.-Taliban deal can be saved.
“I do not think it can be fixed. I think we need to go back to square one,” Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under former President Barack Obama, told VOA’s Afghan service.
“It's absolutely critical that the message be: we will stay as long as it takes,” Crocker added. “We need to see, the world needs to see, the Afghan people above all need to see, and be part of a relatively, reasonably stable, reasonably secure country.”
Bradley Bowman, with Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the increased violence alone, should be cause for concern.
“I think it just makes the case that if this is how they're behaving when they're supposedly on their best behavior, just imagine how they're going to behave once all the American troops are gone, or how and when NATO is gone,” he said.
VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this report; Ayaz Gul contributed from Islamabad.