WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NATO alliance members are “very much interested” in keeping troops in Afghanistan but they cannot remain without critical types of U.S. support, President Ashraf Ghani said on Friday.
The Afghan leader spoke as the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden conducts a review of the U.S.-backed peace process and a February 2020 deal with the Taliban that set a May deadline for a full withdrawal of American forces.
Addressing an Aspen Institute-sponsored online program, Ghani said he had spoken to the leaders of Canada, Norway and Germany, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and that NATO was “very much interested in continuing” the alliance mission in Afghanistan.
“But…NATO, without U.S. enablers, cannot continue its mission,” he said, using a military term for intelligence, air power and other kinds of support the United States provides.
Ghani also said that the United States – now with only 2,500 troops in Afghanistan – and NATO “must take a very strong stand on the conditions-based approach” to withdrawing their troops.
The 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal stipulates that the U.S. withdrawal from America’s longest war be based on conditions on the ground and the Islamist insurgents’ fulfillment of commitments, including ending cooperation with al Qaeda.
Former president Donald Trump authorized the reduction of U.S. forces to their lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, against the advice of some of his military commanders as violence surged and U.S. officials said the Taliban were still cooperating with al Qaeda.
The Taliban deny that there are al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.
Senior Biden administration officials have said that they are reviewing the U.S.-Taliban deal to gain a full understanding of the commitments made by the Trump administration and the insurgents.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said on Friday that they were focused on how far the Taliban have cut ties with “terrorist groups”, were “meaningfully reducing violence” and participating “in a real way, not a fake way” in stalled peace talks in Doha with a delegation that includes Ghani government officials.
“In that context, we make decisions about our force structure and our diplomatic strategy going forward,” he told a U.S. Institute of Peace event, in apparent reference to the May 1 U.S. troop withdrawal deadline.
Ghani said the Biden administration planned to send a delegation to Kabul for consultations.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson)