BRUSSELS : NATO troops may need to stay in Afghanistan for a longer period and any decision should be based on the situation on the ground, Germany’s defence minister said on Thursday in an implicit criticism of US withdrawal plans. Despite the recapture of the strategic northern city of Kunduz from Taliban militants, the intense fighting has raised questions over whether NATO-trained Afghan forces were ready to go it alone now most foreign combat troops have left.
“We’ll need to look at how we go forward and whether we should stay longer,” Ursula von der Leyen said as she arrived for a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels. “The developments in Kunduz show that the way that we have walked together with the Afghans ... that we have to walk on.”
The deadly bombing of a hospital in Kunduz has also put renewed attention on NATO’s future in the country that has received more than $100 billion in international aid but whose long-term stability is still in question.
Germany has long seen its troop presence under NATO as a stabilisation mission and stresses the focus is on civil reconstruction, meant to reassure a German public that remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of its troops in combat, more than six decades after the end of World War Two.
“I will appeal today that we don’t organise the withdrawal from Afghanistan according to a rigid timetable, but that we analyse the situation there and coordinate the withdrawal accordingly step by step,” von der Leyen said.
“This means that we put the responsibility into the Afghans’ hands in a way that they are actually capable to keep their country stable.”
Germany, which had 1,900 troops stationed in Kunduz at the height of its mission there, has reduced its presence but still has 870 soldiers in the region.
Defence ministers meeting in Brussels discussed a timetable for the mission significantly beyond 2016, a NATO source said.
Von der Leyen has warned for months about a hasty withdrawal and was uncomfortable with US President Barack Obama’s timetable for bringing troops home by the end of next year, leaving 1,000 US soldiers in Kabul.
US Army General John Campbell, who commands the NATO troops in Afghanistan, said he supported calls for drawing down force numbers at a slower pace, citing multiple threats from Islamic State militants and other radical groups.