The United States will not unilaterally withdraw troops from Afghanistan without coordinating with its allies, acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan said on Thursday, following talks in Brussels with his NATO counterparts.
US troops make up around half of the 17,000-strong NATO contingent in Afghanistan under its Resolute Support mission, which aims to train and advise Afghan security forces and help create the basis for a lasting peace in the country after 18 years of conflict.
But at the same time, Washington is engaged in renewed efforts to negotiate a peace deal between the radical Taliban and the Afghan government, with a view to scale back the US military's presence in the country.
There are fears within NATO that a US withdrawal could endanger the entire mission in Afghanistan, destabilizing the country and leading to setbacks in democracy and human rights.
‘There will be no unilateral troop reduction,’ Shanahan told journalists on Thursday, at the end of the two-day talks at which Afghanistan was one of the key agenda items.
‘That was one of the messages of the meeting today: We'll be coordinated. We are together,’ he added, while noting that NATO was playing a ‘critical’ role in developing the Afghan security forces.
‘Our mission in Afghanistan remains a top priority,’ NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the 29 ministers earlier in the day. ‘We continue to support Afghan forces with training and with funding.’ ‘Of course the aim is not to stay there forever,’ he later noted. ‘The aim is to reach a political settlement which makes it possible also then, at the end, to reduce our presence.’ But any such decision would be taken together, ‘based on conditions determined together with the Afghans,’ the NATO chief stressed.
Resolute Support took over in 2015 from the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force, a combat mission deployed to help provide security and develop new Afghan forces after a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001.