NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the military alliance will not pull its forces out of Afghanistan “before the time is right,” two decades after it invaded the country on the pretext of fighting terror.
The NATO chief made the comment on Monday, ahead of a summit scheduled to be held on Wednesday and Thursday, which will be attended by 30 defense ministers of the alliance.
The virtual conference will be NATO’s highest-level talks since US President Joe Biden took office in January vowing to work closer with other member states after four years of tensions under former President Donald Trump.
“While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right,” Stoltenberg said, speaking from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, at a virtual presser.
“Ministers will continue to assess the situation on the ground and monitor developments very closely.”
Top of the agenda for the upcoming summit will reportedly be the fate of NATO's 9,600-strong support mission in Afghanistan.
Trump signed a deal with the Taliban militant group early last year to withdraw troops by May this year in exchange for the Taliban to halt attacks on foreign forces.
The future of the NATO deployment will be largely determined by Biden, who will either stick to the May withdrawal deadline or will risk a bloody backlash from the Taliban by staying put.
“We will continue to take all measures to ensure the safety of our troops, and consider next steps in a deliberate and coordinated way,” Stoltenberg said, stressing that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan “is conditions-based.”
The United States along with its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the guise of fighting terrorism and dismantling al-Qaeda.
The invasion — which has turned into the longest war in US history — removed the Taliban from power, but the militant group has never stopped its attacks, citing the foreign military presence as one of the main reasons behind its continued militancy.
The White House says it is reviewing the US-Taliban deal, while the Pentagon has accused the militant group of not fulfilling promises.
Trump decreased the number of US troops to 2,500 in January, their lowest figure since the onset of the so-called war on terror.
During the past several months, the Taliban has escalated attacks in Afghanistan amid stuttering peace talks with the central government in Kabul.
The Taliban have already warned NATO ministers against seeking a “continuation of occupation and war.”
Elsewhere in his remarks, the NATO chief said the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of its deal with the US to allow for any possible foreign troop withdrawal by a May deadline.
“We see that there is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments… The Taliban must reduce violence; negotiate in good faith and live up to their commitment to stop cooperating with national terrorist groups.”