NATO chief says Afghan mission future depends on peace talks

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg presents the annual report for 2018 during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg presents the annual report for 2018 during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg presents the annual report for 2018 during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BRUSSELS — The future of NATO's 15-year-long military operation in Afghanistan will depend on the outcome of peace talks involving Taliban insurgents, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, after a U.S. envoy reported important progress from the latest round of negotiations.

The longest direct talks ever held between the United States and the Taliban concluded this week. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the sides reached "draft agreements" covering the withdrawal of U.S. troops and guarantees that Afghanistan would not become a haven for terrorists once a settlement is found.

The United States has around 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Around half of them carry out counter-terror operations while others lead NATO's military training and mentoring mission.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that about 7,000 U.S. troops would leave, but it's unclear which ones would stay. Most of NATO's European allies depend on U.S. air and logistical support to carry out their mission.

"The future force level of NATO troops is very much dependent of course on the outcome of those talks," Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, but he underlined that the negotiations are far from over.

"It's too early to pre-empt the outcome of the talks," Stoltenberg said. "There's still much to be done before a peace deal is in place."

NATO took charge of the international military effort in Afghanistan in 2003 in its most ambitious operation ever. It launched a military training effort in 2015 once it had phased out overt combat operations, but after a reduction in force strength, troop numbers have gradually climbed again to more than 16,000 personnel.

Despite the presence of U.S. and NATO troops, the conflict remains at a stalemate.

The progress in peace talks appears to offer the United States and its allies a way to end their presence after one of the most expensive wars in U.S. history, costing between 800 billion and one trillion dollars, according to various estimates.

The website icasualties says the conflict has also cost the lives of around 3,400 troops — some 2,300 of them from the U.S. — since 2003.

NATO military officers decline to say whether they have begun planning for a withdrawal.

Whatever the outcome of the peace talks, Stoltenberg said: "We went in together, and we will make future decisions on our posture together."

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