NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said "all options remain open" on Afghanistan, just weeks before Washington is due to withdraw the last of its troops under a deal struck with the Taliban last year.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on March 23-24 and for talks with European Union leaders as part of President Joe Biden's efforts to repair transatlantic ties.
Among the topics on the agenda of the NATO meeting are concerns over China and Russia, as well as the future of the Western alliance’s 9,600-strong mission in Afghanistan after the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw troops by May 1.
Biden has said the deadline would be “tough” for Washington to meet as peace talks between the militant group and Afghan government, launched in Qatar in September 2020, struggle to advance.
NATO foreign ministers “will continue consultations on the situation in Afghanistan and our military presence to assess our next steps together,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference on March 22.
“There are no easy choices. For now, all options remain open. The security situation is difficult and we will take all the necessary measures to keep our troops safe,” he added.
In a briefing ahead of Blinken’s trip to Brussels, Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said the United States remains committed to close consultation with NATO allies and other partners on the military mission in Afghanistan.
“We went in together. We will adjust together as we have over the years. And when the time is right, we will leave together,” Reeker said.
NATO allies have said they were willing to stay in Afghanistan to continue training and advising Afghan security forces, if Washington decides to remain as well.
There are currently some 2,500 U.S. troops deployed in the war-torn country.
The relationship with Russia will also be topic during Blinken's trip to Europe, Reeker said, noting that the Biden administration seeks a relationship that is predictable and stable.
"We will engage with our allies to discuss different views of Russia and how we can engage with Russia in ways that obviously advance our collective interests but remain very clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses,” he said.
“Given Russia's conduct in recent months and years, there will also be adversarial elements, as the secretary has underscored, and we're not going to shy away from those,” Reeker said.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, returned to Moscow on March 21 after being recalled for emergency consultations amid rising tensions with Washington following Biden's comments that he believed his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, was a killer.
Blinken's trip is another illustration of a foreign policy reset under Biden that stresses diplomacy and backing for long-standing relationships after former President Donald Trump pursued an "America first" policy that tended to treat traditional allies more as rivals than partners.
As the new Biden administration seeks to reassure NATO allies, it also has to coordinate with European partners on a host of issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, policy toward China, climate change, and lingering disputes over trade.