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.
A State Department representative said Biden was committed to bringing a “responsible end to the ‘forever wars’… while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.”
Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment.