NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg blames Afghanistan’s rapid collapse on its political leadership but says there are “many lessons to be learned” about the alliance’s own two-decade engagement in the country.
“What we have seen in the past few weeks was a military and political collapse at a speed which had not been anticipated,” he told international press in a virtual press conference Tuesday. “Parts of the Afghan security forces fought bravely, but they were unable to secure the country because ultimately the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban, and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted.”
“This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today,” he said.
The 30-country alliance began leading military operations in Afghanistan in 2003 and had operated a training and advisory mission for Afghan security forces called “Resolute Support” since 2015. At their peak, there were 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. None are on the ground today.
Stoltenberg said NATO has suspended “all support” to the Afghan government, “because there’s no Afghan government for NATO to support.”
He said the alliance, after multiple consultations over the past year, was united in its decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, although he conceded that ending the military mission there was “not easy.”
“The United States agreed with the Taliban last year that U.S. troops would withdraw by May. And after many rounds of consultations, all allies agreed to follow the U.S. decision,” he said.
“It was a difficult decision between difficult alternatives. And we have seen the consequences of a difficult decision made by 30 allies together,” he said.
Stoltenberg acknowledged that international terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, could again seek to regain a foothold in the country, but said NATO expected the Taliban to “live up to” the commitments it made in theit struck with the U.S. in February of 2020.
At the same time, he said, “NATO allies will remain vigilant, and we have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again trying to establish themselves.”
He acknowledged that there are “many lessons to be learned” and told one tearful journalist who expressed fear over the fate of Afghan women, “I share your pain.”
Stoltenberg said 800 NATO civilian personnel remained on the ground in Afghanistan and that operations at the airport in Kabul were “gradually reassuming.” He declined to provide a timeline for how long NATO forces would assist in evacuations, but said “we will try to evacuate as many people as possible.”
In the meantime, he appealed to the Taliban to “respect and facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave.”