ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – International troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the insurgent Taliban’s deal with the United States, four senior NATO officials said, a move that could escalate tensions with the Taliban demanding full withdrawal.
“There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” one of the officials told Reuters.
“Conditions have not been met,” he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “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.”
The administration of then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban early last year calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May in return for the insurgents fulfilling certain security guarantees.
Trump hailed the accord – which did not include the Afghan government – as the end of two decades of war. He reduced U.S. troops to 2,500 by this month, the fewest since 2001.
Plans on what will happen after April are now being considered and likely to be a top issue at a key NATO meeting in February, the NATO sources said.
The positions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are becoming increasingly important after the alliance was sidelined by Trump, diplomats and experts say.
Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September in Doha, but violence has remained high.
“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.
No NATO decision has been made, she said, adding that a February meeting NATO defence ministers meeting could not be preempted. “Allies continue to assess the overall situation and to consult on the way forward.”
NATO continues to call on all sides to “seize this historic opportunity for peace,” Lungescu said.
“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,” she said.
Around 10,000 troops, including Americans, are in Afghanistan, Lungescu said.
The NATO source said troop levels are expected to stay roughly the same until after May, but the plan beyond that is not clear.
Kabul and some foreign governments and agencies say the Taliban has failed to meet conditions due to escalated violence and a failure to cut ties with militant groups such as Al Qaeda, which the Taliban denies.
The administration of Joe Biden, who replaced Trump on Jan. 20, has launched a review of his predecessor’s peace agreement.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Taliban have not met their commitments but Washington remained committed to the process and had not decided on future troop levels.
Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment.
The Taliban have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the possibility that Washington might change aspects of the agreement and keep troops in the country beyond May, two Taliban sources told Reuters.
“We conveyed our apprehensions, but they assured us of honouring and acting on the Doha accord. What’s going on, on the ground in Afghanistan, is showing something else. And that’s why we decided to send our delegations to take our allies into confidence,” said a Taliban leader in Doha.
A Taliban delegation this week visited Iran and Russia, and the leader said they were contacting China.
Although informal meetings have been taking place between negotiators in Doha, progress has stalled in recent weeks after an almost one-month break, according to negotiators and diplomats.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the insurgents remained committed to the peace process.
“No doubt that if the Doha deal is not implemented there will be consequences, and the blame will be upon that side which does not honour the deal,” he said. “Our expectations are also that NATO will think to end this war and avoid more excuses for prolonging the war in Afghanistan.”
NATO and Washington will have a challenge getting the Taliban to agree to an extension beyond May.
If the situation remains unclear, the Taliban may increase attacks, possibly once again on international forces, said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the British think tank ODI.
The lack of a resolution “gives voice to spoilers inside the Taliban who never believed the U.S. would leave willingly, and who have pushed for a ratcheting up of attacks even after the U.S.-Taliban deal was agreed,” she said.
A Feb. 17-18 meeting of NATO defence ministers will be a chance for a newly empowered NATO to determine how the process would be shaped, said one source, a senior European diplomat.
“With the new administration coming in there will be a more cooperative result, NATO countries will have a say.”
Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Rupam Jain in Panaji, India, and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Pakistan; Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by William Mallard
Foreign Troops to Stay in Afghanistan Beyond May deadline
Quoted by Reuters, a NATO official said “there will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end.”
Quoting four senior NATO officials, Reuters reported that international troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the Taliban’s deal with the United States.
The US-Taliban deal signed in Doha last year in February calls for the full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan by the end of May.
“There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” a NATO official said as quoted by Reuters.
“Conditions have not been met,” the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “And with the new US 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.”
Violence remains high amid the peace negotiations between the Afghan Republic and the Taliban teams in Doha that started last year in September. The negotiators agreed on rules and procedures for the talks after three months of discussions. The teams went back to Doha earlier this month after a three-week break during which they consulted their leaders on the issues that will be added to the agenda of the negotiations.
But NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said: “No decision has been made. NATO defense ministers will address Afghanistan at their meeting on February 17-18.”
“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,” she said.
“We continue to call on all sides to seize this historic opportunity for peace. The Taliban must respect their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence, and to engage in meaningful negotiations. Taliban violence continues to undermine the peace process, and it must end,” she said.
NATO spokesperson said that the mission of the organization remains unchanged.
“We continue to support the Afghan security forces in their fight against terrorism and to secure their country. Currently, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission includes around 10,000 troops, a large majority of whom are non-US. No NATO Ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based. Allies continue to assess the overall situation, and to consult on the way forward,” the spokesperson said.
Quoted by Reuters, she said about 10,000 troops, including Americans, are in Afghanistan. Those levels are expected to stay roughly the same until after May, but the plan beyond that is not clear, the NATO source said.
This comes two days after US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on Friday said that they are “taking a hard look” at how the Taliban is complying with its agreement with the US before deciding how to proceed.
Sullivan told an online program sponsored by the US Institute of Peace that the Taliban should participate in “real … not fake” negotiations with the Afghan government.
“What we’re doing right now, is taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are in fact complying with those three conditions, and in that context, we make decisions about our force posture and our diplomatic strategy going forward,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan discussed the May 1 deadline to withdraw the remaining US forces in Afghanistan under the deal that was signed between the United States and the Taliban in Doha on February 29, 2020.
Abbas Stanekzai, the deputy head of the Taliban’s negotiating team, at a press conference in Moscow on Friday, rejected the group’s ties with al-Qaeda, saying that there is no member of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
A Taliban spokesman on Friday accused the US of violating its side of the agreement.
Will the US finally get the hell out of Afghanistan once and for all?
BY JEFF SCHOGOL
Task and Purpose.com
FEBRUARY 01, 2021
All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan within the next 90 days, but it remains uncertain whether they will actually depart as planned.
Rupam Jain and Charlotte Greenfield of Reuters recently reported that U.S. and other foreign troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond May because conditions on the ground do not allow for the full withdrawal called for under the Feb. 29 agreement between the Taliban and the United States.
However, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu has issued a statement pushing back.
“No decision has been made,” Lungescu said, adding that NATO defense ministers will discuss the situation in Afghanistan during their upcoming meeting scheduled for Feb. 17 and 18.
Lungescu declined to comment further when contacted by Task & Purpose on Monday.
The Biden administration is currently evaluating whether the Taliban is engaging in meaningful peace negotiations with the Afghan government and meeting their other responsibilities under the Feb. 29 withdrawal agreement, a State Department spokesperson said.
Roughly 2,500 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan. Former President Donald Trump ordered steep drawdowns of U.S. forces in the country in the last year of his administration despite worsening violence in Afghanistan.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has said that the Taliban have failed to meet their commitments to reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan and finally sever all ties with Al Qaeda.
The following day, Kirby told Neil Cavuto, host of Fox News’ Your World, that no decisions have been made about future troop levels in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin plans to speak with U.S. military commanders both in the field and at the Pentagon to have a better idea of what force levels in Afghanistan should look like going forward, Kirby said during the Jan. 29 interview.
“What has happened off the table is that peace is not been socialized to the Taliban commanders or rank and file,” Ghani said during the Aspen Security Forum. “Their leaders have taken pictures with suicide bombers and met wounded people in hospitals in Karachi and others.”
“If Afghanistan – God forbid – is left without a political settlement that brings peace, every terrorist group is going to migrate here and target us,” he continued. “Already, over 25 are here. They are trained by the Taliban. They are supported by them. They are nurtured by them. It’s a competitive but also a very cooperative relationship.”
Ultimately, President Joe Biden will have to decide whether to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past May or end the U.S. military’s 19-year commitment there.
If Biden decides that it is time for the United States to leave Afghanistan, it would come more than 10 years after he predicted the end of the Afghan war on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Jeff Schogol is the senior Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years