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NATO Waits On U.S. To Review Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden has paused a planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. His predecessor, Donald Trump, spent his last months in office talking of removing the last U.S. troops. The troops didn't go, but Trump left behind a plan to get them out this spring. Biden says he would rather consider his options first. Part of that process involves consulting with NATO allies who have been part of the fight. Teri Schultz reports from Brussels, where NATO defense ministers will meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin by videoconference.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: In together, out together has been NATO's mantra in Afghanistan, its longest mission in history. But President Trump drew U.S. troops down to 2,500 in the days before he left office without consulting allies dependent on American capabilities for their own security. Now, NATO governments wait on the Biden administration to decide whether to withdraw all troops, based in large part on whether the Taliban is fulfilling obligations in a February 2020 peace deal. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hoped that determination could be made this week but acknowledges that even without the Biden delay, conditions are not right for a withdrawal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: There is still a need for Taliban to do more when it comes to deliver on their commitments. Taliban needs to reduce violence, to negotiate in good faith and to make sure that they break all ties with international terrorists because the Afghan people wants peace.

SCHULTZ: Peace is what Rahmatullah Andar wants too, and he knows war. Andar was a Taliban commander before he became disillusioned with the militant group and joined the Afghan government. Now, as the spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Council, Andar won't go so far as to recommend NATO forces stay longer, but his concern is clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAHMATULLAH ANDAR: Defending Afghanistan is our responsibility, regardless of the foreign troops' withdrawal or not. But the world should not make a decision that may deteriorate the situation in Afghanistan.

SCHULTZ: Retired Army General Doug Lute has served as both a National Security Council adviser on Afghanistan and as the U.S. ambassador to NATO. He says the administration's calculation should not be limited to boots on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUGLAS LUTE: We should not be so engaged only on troops, but we should be engaged in how those troops can support the political process. For most of the last 20 years, we had the politics of Afghanistan supporting the military campaign. We now have the troops in support of the politics, and that's very important.

SCHULTZ: Experts warn a complete departure of troops before a sustainable peace agreement is secured is likely to hand victory to the Taliban, something women's rights activist Satara Hassan fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SETARA HASSAN: No women in Afghanistan right now is at peace with the fact that there is a chance that the regime might come back in power. This is a worrisome period for everyone in Afghanistan, especially for women.

SCHULTZ: But the Taliban insists Washington's only option is to stick to the deadline and withdraw all troops by May, warning they're ready to keep fighting.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.