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NATO weighs future of Afghan mission, seeks to support talks

NATO defence ministers are discussing the future of the alliance's operation in Afghanistan and how best to use its military presence to support political talks aimed at ending the conflict.

U.S. assures allies no unilateral American withdrawal planned

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province in 2018. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

NATO defence ministers on Thursday weighed the future of the alliance's operation in Afghanistan and debated how best to use its military presence to support political talks aimed at ending the conflict.

Frustrated with America's longest war, U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants to pull out troops, raising doubts about NATO's Afghan troop training operation in the strife-torn country. Around 14,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, just over half with NATO and the rest doing counter-terror and combat operations.

But Patrick Shanahan, the U.S. acting secretary of defence, on Thursday sought to assuage any fears among NATO allies of a unilateral American pullout. 

"There will be no unilateral troop reduction; it will be co-ordinated," he told reporters following the meeting in Brussels. "We came out of here much stronger and co-ordinated." 

Were U.S. troops to leave the NATO operation, allies like Germany wouldn't be able to do their job as they rely on American air support.

"No decision has been taken about any withdrawal. But we strongly support the efforts to reach a political, peaceful settlement," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said before the talks.

The U.S. and NATO troops are mostly advising and training, but when requested they assist Afghan forces in battles with the Taliban, who carry out near-daily assaults on Afghan soldiers and police. More than 17 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition, the Taliban control, influence or hold sway over nearly half the country, and the conflict is at a stalemate.

Patrick Shanahan, U.S. acting secretary of defence, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speak to reporters during a defence ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. (REUTERS)

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is meeting with the Taliban and others to try to end the conflict. He has briefed NATO ambassadors three times in recent weeks, including just before Thursday's meeting.

NATO is wary of setting any timeline for a possible withdrawal as the Taliban have been content to wait international forces out in the past.

"NATO allies went in together in Afghanistan. We will make decisions on our future posture in Afghanistan together, based on conditions determined together with the Afghans," Stoltenberg said.

Still, the Western allies understand that an offer to leave could be a powerful bargaining chip with the insurgents, even if the U.S.-led forces would want guarantees, or be able to monitor future peace moves. What is clear is that the 29-country military alliance has no shared appetite to shift from training and mentoring to counter-terrorism operations.

For the moment, however, it is too early to tell. Upcoming elections in Afghanistan will further complicate the picture for NATO, as those polls decide what parties should be involved in peace moves.

With files from Reuters

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