Afghan women cadets march during a training program at the Officers Training Academy in Chennai on Thursday. Photo: AFP / Arun Sankar

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday the alliance had made “no final decision” on the future of its Afghanistan mission, as new US President Joe Biden weighs pulling out troops. 

While defense ministers held off on making that call at a two-day virtual conference, they did decide to expand a NATO training mission in Iraq from 500 to “around 4,000” personnel. 

The fate of NATO’s 9,600-strong support mission in Afghanistan was top of the agenda after former US leader Donald Trump struck a deal with the Taliban to pull troops out.

Biden’s administration is reviewing whether to stick to a looming May 1 deadline to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops or risk a bloody backlash from the insurgents by staying.

“We are faced with many dilemmas and there are no easy options. At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference. 

“But as the May 1st deadline is approaching, NATO allies will continue to closely consult and coordinate in the coming weeks.”

Stoltenberg insisted the Taliban must live up to commitments under the deal with the US, including making progress in peace talks with Kabul, reducing violence and cutting ties to “international terrorist groups”.

“NATO’s goal is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that would attack our homelands,” he said.

The Taliban has launched a string of offensives threatening at least two provincial capitals and warned NATO ministers not to seek a “continuation of occupation and war” by staying. 

“The protection of our troops remains paramount, and we will take all necessary measures to keep them safe,” Stoltenberg said. 

Allies are waiting anxiously for Biden to make his decision on whether to end two decades of involvement in Afghanistan – but say they are willing to remain if the US stays too.  

While Trump cut US forces to just 2,500 troop in January, from nearly 13,000 a year earlier, the other NATO members rely on the American capabilities to keep the mission going. 

US officials said new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, keen to revitalize ties after years of tensions under Trump, was going to listen to the allies and pass on their input to Biden. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the review with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a call on Wednesday and vowed the US would consult closely “on the way ahead,” Washington said.   

In a statement the Pentagon said Austin told NATO allies that Washington remains “committed to a diplomatic effort to end the war.”

Austin also reassured them “that the US would not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the Pentagon said. 

Iraq expansion

On Iraq, defence ministers agreed to bolster a NATO training mission aimed at strengthening the country’s military as it looks to curb the resurgence of the Islamic State group. 

“The size of our mission will increase from 500 personnel to around 4,000,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the increases would be “incremental”. 

“Training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions, and areas beyond Baghdad.”

Stoltenberg insisted that the mission was being carried out “at the request of the Iraqi government.” 

“It is carried out with full respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

NATO has had a small non-combat mission in the country since 2018 to train and advise Iraqi forces. 

The alliance announced plans to expand the mission last year under pressure from Trump to increase NATO’s role in the Middle East. 

That move was put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic and worries about instability, but is now being pushed through with strong backing from Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. 

There is currently also a force from a US-led coalition against IS based mainly in the northern city of Arbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region. 

Since Iraq declared victory over IS in late 2017, the coalition presence has been reduced to fewer than 3,500 troops, of whom 2,500 are American.

The expanded NATO mission is expected to take over some of the training currently being conducted by the anti-IS coalition. 

The announcement comes amid fears over rising tensions in Iraq after a rocket attack on Monday killed a foreign contractor for the US military in Arbil.