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NATO Defense Ministers Discuss Way Forward In Afghanistan

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a news conference ahead to a NATO defense ministers meeting.

NATO defense ministers are due to discuss on February 18 whether to withdraw international forces from Afghanistan by the end of April as per an agreement with the Taliban despite a steady increase in the level of violence in the war-wracked country.

The two-day meeting, the ministers’ first since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, opened on February 17 with a presentation of reform plans to modernize the alliance. Discussions about NATO’s mission in Iraq will also be held on February 18.

The Biden administration has said the United States is reviewing a U.S.-Taliban agreement to determine if the militant group is meeting its commitments, including reaching a cease-fire and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government.

Under the deal, all foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May in exchange for security guarantees from the militant group such as severing ties with Al-Qaeda.

Despite the launch of peace talks between Afghan and Taliban negotiators in Qatar in September, violence in Afghanistan has soared, raising concerns about NATO troops withdrawing too early and potentially allowing the insurgents to claim victory.

Ahead of the virtual meeting, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said peace talks had not made sufficient progress to allow a full withdrawal.

"This means we will have to prepare for a changing security situation and a rising threat to both international troops and our own soldiers," Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a statement on February 17.

Two days earlier, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban must do more to meet the terms of its agreement with the United States to allow for any possible foreign troop withdrawal by May.

"We see that there is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments...to make sure that they break old ties with international terrorists," Stoltenberg said.

The alliance will not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan "before the time is right,” he added.

Soaring Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have prompted members of the U.S. Congress and international rights groups to call for a postponement to the withdrawal agreed under former President Donald Trump.

On February 17, two Afghan policemen were shot dead in Kabul while a roadside bomb killed two officers and wounded three more in the western province of Herat.

Kabul has seen multiple attacks with small magnetic bombs attached under vehicles and targeted assassinations in recent weeks against security forces, officials, judges, civil society activists, and journalists.

General Scott Miller, the head of U.S. forces and the NATO-led noncombat Resolute Support mission, said Taliban violence was "much higher than historical norms."

"It just doesn't create the conditions to move forward in what is hopefully a historic turning point for Afghanistan,” Miller told Reuters on February 17.

The number of U.S. troops is now down to 2,500 after Trump accelerated the drawdown in his final days in office. They are supported by about 7,000 NATO troops.

The NATO defense ministers will not make any firm announcement after the discussions wrap up on February 18, but an online news conference is scheduled to take place.

Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the meeting that he will urge defense ministers “to increase NATO’s funding for our core deterrence and defense activities” in an effort to improve “burden sharing” -- the way the 30 member countries contribute cash, military hardware and troops to operations run by the world’s biggest security organization.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters
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