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Afghanistan: NATO Troop Withdrawal Decision Looms

Defence ministers from the alliance will this week discuss plans to pull out of the country completely by May.

The head of NATO has called on the Taliban to reduce violence in Afghanistan, days before allies are due to decide on a military presence in the country.

In December, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said defence ministers could decide in February whether to fully withdraw after two decades in Afghanistan as part of a US-brokered peace deal from 2020.

Under the agreement, a complete NATO troop withdrawal by the end of May 2021 would be possible if the Taliban upheld a number of counter-terrorism conditions.

However, a notable reduction against alliance forces has been marred by a surge in attacks against Afghan forces and civilians.

Ahead of defence ministers meeting this Wednesday and Thursday, Mr Stoltenberg said the Taliban must "live up to their commitment to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups".

The appeal for the group to "negotiate in good faith" comes as peace talks have resumed in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

There are more than 9,000 NATO troops remaining in Afghanistan, 750 of whom are British, while the US has withdrawn more than two-thirds of its contribution in the last year.

The number of US personnel in the country has been reduced to 2,500, its lowest since 2001.

The UK's military role in Afghanistan began in that same year, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had set this week as a deadline for a decision on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan (Picture: NATO).

Since his arrival to office, President Joe Biden has ordered a review of the 2020 peace deal, which had been brokered under the Trump administration.

Alongside this, a report to US lawmakers in Congress has warned a total withdrawal could lead to civil war in Afghanistan.

If ministers decide this week to pull all NATO troops out of the country, nations will have just 11 weeks to do so.

However, no firm decision may effectively become a de-facto choice not to withdraw – prompting questions over the future of troops that remain.

Retired Colonel Simon Diggins, UK Defence Attaché to Kabul from 2008 to 2010, said: "I think the timetable that's been drawn has been driven by the Americans' desire to get out, rather than necessarily about the situation that's actually on the ground."

Mr Diggins suggested that support, both financial and through training, must continue to match the civil strife likely to be felt in Afghanistan "for a long period of time".

Cover image: MOD.