Wrapping up the two day NATO Defense Ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday, the alliance’s chief Jens Stoltenberg said the organization is in Afghanistan to fight terrorism and to create the conditions for a peace deal.
Stoltenberg said that the alliance went into Afghanistan together with the US and will make decisions going forward together. He said that it is not possible for anyone to predict the outcome of peace talks but they believe the Afghan government needs to play a key role to ensure lasting peace.
He said that the situation in Afghanistan remains difficult, but reiterated that the Taliban will never win on the battlefields.
“The situation in Afghanistan remains difficult. But we also see ongoing peace process. Our Resolute Support mission continues to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces as they fight terrorism and create the condition for peace.
“US envoy ambassador (Zalmay) Khalilzad has kept allies closely updated on his efforts for a peace settlement. We fully support those efforts. We continue to consult on the implications of a possible peace deal,” he said.
Stoltenberg also said the Taliban will never win on the battlefield.
“The main message today is that we are committed to our Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. Because we are there to fight terrorism and we are there to create the conditions for a peace deal and we know the way to reach a peace deal with the Taliban is to send a clear message that they will never win on the battlefield,” he said.
He also said the US has kept them updated on their peace efforts in the past few weeks.
“The aim is to reach a political settlement which makes it possible also then at the end to reduce our presence.
“We support Afghans in many different ways, we support them with our training, with our military operations, with our presence but also with extensive funding.
“The NATO allies at the summit in July, we decided to extend that funding until 2024. Some allies actually made new announcement, they are ready to increase their presence in Afghanistan and some allies also expressed that they are ready to stay in Afghanistan for a long time,” said Stoltenberg.
This comes amid ongoing rumors of a US troop withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg called on regional countries, especially Afghanistan’s neighboring nations including Pakistan, to support the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
“I think that the message is very clear, the neighbors of Afghanistan should support the peace efforts. We have to remember that President (Ashraf) Ghani took really a bold decision last year to initiate the peace process, to initiate ceasefire and the aim of the efforts of the United States is of course to facilitate an Afghan reconciliation process, this has to be supported by Afghanistan’s neighbors, because at the end of the day, the Afghans have to lead, the Afghans have to own the peace process and it has to be an Afghan reconciliation supported by the international community, especially the neighbors of Afghanistan,” he said.
This comes a day after the Taliban said in a statement that the next round of talks between US officials and Taliban is scheduled for February 25 and will be held in the Qatari capital, Doha.
“Another meeting at the formal invitation of Pakistan is scheduled for 18th of February and will be held in Islamabad and will be attended by negotiation teams of Taliban and the US and the Taliban team will also meet with Pakistan PM Imran Khan,” the Taliban said in a statement.
Taliban on Tuesday announced the formation of a 14-member peace negotiating team ahead of this month’s Doha talks.
In a statement, the group said that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy head of Taliban’s Qatar office has assigned the team in line with the guidance of group’s leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada.
Taliban’s negotiating team is expected to hold talks with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad on 25 February in Doha.
Reports indicate that Taliban’s chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai will lead the Taliban team. Stanakzai previously served as head of Taliban’s Qatar office.
Meanwhile, Acting Defense Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan said on Thursday that the US supports Khalilzad’s efforts and that NATO will continue to develop and support the Afghan National Security Forces.
There will be no unilateral troop reduction in Afghanistan, he said.
“We are helping to ensure a diplomatic settlement with ambassador Khalilzad in the lead; No outcome is pre-determined, as President (Donald) Trump said in the state of the union – after two decades of war the hour has come to try for peace,” said Shanahan.
“There will no unilateral troop reduction, one of the messages of the meeting today will be coordinated, we are together, President Trump said this is an opportunity for peace. Lets not let this opportunity be stolen away from us. What we talked about was how do we double down in our support to Afghan national security and security forces to put even more pressure on Taliban.
“We talked about no division. We also talked about in a post-reconciliation environment, how would we make coordinated decisions, how we would do the planning in a post-reconciliation environment,” he said.
US-Taliban Marathon Dialogue In Quest For Peace
These developments come as Khalilzad leads an interagency delegation to Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The trip started on February 10 and will run through until February 28, the US State Department said in a statement on Sunday.
“This trip is part of an overall effort to facilitate a peace process that protects US national security interests and brings all Afghan parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue through which they can determine a path for their country’s future,” it said.
Khalilzad, who addressed a gathering at the US Institute for Peace last week, said the United States is hoping Afghanistan can strike a peace agreement including the Taliban before the presidential elections scheduled for July.
Khalilzad, who held talks with Taliban representatives four times in the last four months, has expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of a deal, and even announced a draft framework, but stressed nothing had been finalized.
The talks come as US President Donald Trump pushes to end the Afghan conflict, where about 14,000 US troops are still deployed, and which has seen countless civilian and military deaths, as well as an infusion of more than $1 trillion in US cash into the country.
In his annual State of the Union speech last week, Trump said the time has come “to at least try for peace.”
Afghan government remains absent
Despite international calls, the Taliban has until now refused to talk with the Afghan government. The group insists that they will not engage in dialogue with government, which it brands a “puppet”.