It is a measure of just how critical the security situation in Afghanistan has become that the subject should take centre stage in this week’s Nato summit, the first to be held since the inauguration of US President Joe Biden.
While Washington’s first priority during the two day virtual conference of Nato defence ministers has been to attempt to repair relations with some of its key allies in Europe, particularly Germany and France, after the bruising experience they suffered at the hands of the Trump administration, the main topic of conversation has been Afghanistan, and whether Nato ought to continue its military presence in the country.
At its height, the Afghan conflict saw more than 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Under the terms of the peace deal Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump signed with the Taliban last year, Washington has committed to withdrawing the last remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan by May.
Indeed, during his final weeks in office Mr Trump almost halved the number of American troops based in the country, as part of his campaign promise to end Washington’s involvement in long and costly military interventions abroad. But that promise has been a source of deep unease within Nato. A number of European states, including Britain, still have around 8,000 troops on the ground, supporting the Afghan security forces.
Many European leaders argue that it is too early to be talking about a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan while so many key issues concerning the country's future remain unresolved. Concerns within Nato about the timetable for completing the withdrawal process surfaced on the eve of this week's virtual summit when the alliance's Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, insisted that no withdrawal should be undertaken "before the time is right", and that the Taliban needed to do more to meet the terms of their 2020 agreement with the US before such a move could be considered.
“While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right,” Mr Stoltenberg told a media briefing before the summit. “We see that there is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments… to make sure that they break all ties with international terrorists.
“Ministers will continue to assess the situation on the ground and monitor developments very closely,” he said.
The reluctance of many European members of the Nato alliance to meet the May withdrawal deadline could cause a damaging split within the alliance if Mr Biden decides to press ahead with the controversial withdrawal timetable set by his predecessor. He certainly appears torn on the subject. Maintaining Washington’s military presence in the country could provoke further attacks on coalition forces from the Taliban and other militant groups.
The other consideration that will weigh heavily on the Biden administration is the concern that abandoning Afghanistan could lead to militant groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS re-establishing terrorist bases in the country. The Taliban, who insist that they are fulfilling their commitments under the deal, have said that they expect the American withdrawal to be completed as agreed, with Taliban negotiators arguing that the agreement was not struck with Mr Trump personally but rather the American government, and should therefore be honoured.
Afghan officials, however, are deeply sceptical about the Taliban’s claims that they are sticking to their side of the bargain, claiming that the Taliban are directly responsible for the recent upsurge in violence that has affected large parts of the country.
In an interview with The Times earlier this week, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan's National Security Advisor, accused the Taliban of simply exploiting the deal to secure the release of Taliban fighters from Afghan prisons: "The only thing the Taliban have taken out of this agreement is to get their prisoners, then launch an offensive against the Afghan forces and government. That was, it seems, their plan from the beginning."
Certainly, any hopes that the deal negotiated by Mr Trump would lead to improved security within the country have failed to materialise. On the contrary, Afghanistan now finds itself in the midst of a major security crisis, with militants concentrating their attacks on a broad cross-section of Afghan society, including judges, activists, journalists, clerics, students and many professionals.
One depressing feature of this increase in violence is that it has resulted in some young, educated Afghans, who have enjoyed a more liberal lifestyle in recent years and once heralded a bright future for their country, opting to abandon their country in order to escape the worsening violence.
As a senior British official told me earlier this week: “the American peace deal looks increasingly like nothing more than a cut-and-run exercise that was designed to boost Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. Instead, it has simply played into the Taliban’s hands who are now in a strong position to dictate the outcome of the conflict.”
As a consequence, there is a growing awareness within Nato that a final peace deal between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s democratically-elected government needs to be concluded before the complete withdrawal of foreign forces can be undertaken. Whether this happens depends to a large extent on how the Biden administration opts to tackle this problematic issue.
Lloyd Austin, the newly appointed US defence secretary, has said that the administration wants to undertake an in-depth assessment of the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban before reaching any final decision. But if the security situation in Afghanistan continues to decline, the new administration may find that it has no alternative other than to keep American soldiers in the country and stay the course.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National