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NATO holds its breath as Trump plans for January withdrawal from Afghanistan

The NATO principle of one-for-all and all-for-one was the reason it — and by extension Canada — went into Afghanistan, but that assumption is being sorely tested by a U.S. administration that is in a hurry to wind things up.

Hurry might be a relative term, though, considering Washington’s military involvement in the country is approaching the two-decade mark.

The Trump administration’s deadline to draw down U.S. forces to 2,500 troops by mid-January — paving the way for a full withdrawal — has been greeted with nervousness by NATO allies.

There is an old saying, from early in the war, that the Taliban were fond of repeating: you have the watches, we have the time.

The implication was that militants could simply wait out foreign forces and wear them down in a steady drip of casualties and spectacular setbacks.

It seems time is still on the Taliban’s side.

Witness the steady rise in attacks across at least 50 districts in the country, according to Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, in figures that were recently reported in the local media.

Key parts of Kandahar province, which have remained relatively peaceful since the Canadian withdrawal from there almost a decade ago, have become contested. 

Afghan forces, with the help of punishing U.S. airstrikes, were forced to retake the Arghandab district from the Taliban recently in a level of fighting that matched the darkest days of Canada’s involvement in the restive province.

With their refusal to agree to an outright ceasefire, the Taliban are putting pressure on both the Afghan government and the U.S. as a deadline for the complete withdrawal of international forces looms next spring.

A hard decision

The Taliban are playing for time as peace talks grind on in Doha, Qatar, leaving bewildered NATO allies warning that the last two decades may end up being for naught should the Taliban succeed in their resurgent campaign of violence. 

“We strongly support the peace talks that are taking place between the Taliban and the government,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a pre-recorded interview at last weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum.

“And part of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is that all international troops would be out by the first [of] May next year. So, clearly we have to make a very hard decision and that is whether to leave and risk to lose the gains we’ve made … or whether we stay and continue to be involved in a very challenging and demanding operation in Afghanistan.”

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, pictured in April, says the alliance is free to make its own collective decision about whether to follow the U.S. out of Afghanistan next spring. (The Associated Press)

Stoltenberg staked his ground on the possibly quaint notion that the alliance is free to make its own collective decision about whether to follow the U.S. out the door next spring.

“My message is that we must assess whether the conditions for leaving are met together,” he said. “We need to make these decisions together, and as we have said many times at NATO, we went into Afghanistan together, we should make decisions about adjustments to our presence together, and when the time is right we should leave together in a co-ordinated and orderly way.”

The reality is, without U.S. logistical and air support, a standalone NATO mission would have a short shelf life.

Abdullah Abdullah, the chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and the man leading the government’s negotiating team, told Agence France-Presse a few days ago that the two sides are “very close” to breaking a deadlock in peace talks.

Those negotiations started on Sept. 12, but bogged down over agenda disagreements, the basic framework of the discussions and religious interpretations, according to the news agency.

“We haven’t moved towards discussion of the main substance of negotiations, the main agenda,” said Abdullah, who was interviewed in Turkey.

“We are close. We are very close. Hopefully we pass this phase and get to the substantial issues” including security.

The assessment coincided with a separate statement from the Taliban to AFP that said “sufficient progress” had been made on key sticking points.

At the same time, the group has consistently refused to take part in a ceasefire, with frequent attacks against Afghan security forces.

They show no signs of being in a hurry. As ever, the Taliban don’t need watches.

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