NATO Could Complete Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal by July 4 — Months Ahead of U.S. Goal

As international peace talks between warring factions in Afghanistan were postponed on Wednesday, Germany's Defense Ministry said a July 4 withdrawal from Afghanistan by NATO troops is being considered, more than two months ahead of the U.S., the Associated Press reported.

The postponed international peace conference was meant to form a contract between opposing parties in Afghanistan, days after the Taliban balked at a U.S.-promoted conference in Istanbul as a political spectacle serving American interests, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Haberturk news channel on Tuesday.

"We thought that it would be beneficial to postpone it....We consulted Qatar, the United States and the United Nations and decided to hold it after Ramadan and Eid festivities," Cavusoglu said.

The U.S. and NATO have pledged to withdrawal their 13,000 combined troops starting May 1 and complete the efforts by September 11.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

ANA
Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a damaged petrol station near the site of a bomb attack against a convoy of Afghan security forces, in Kabul on April 21, 2021. International troops are planning a July 4 withdrawal after the Taliban refused to attend a peace conference in Turkey. WAKIL KOHSAR/Getty Images

"The Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul are currently considering whether to shorten the withdrawal period," said German Defense Ministry spokesman David Helmbold. "The 4th of July is now being considered as a pullout date. The ministry informed the (German parliament's) defense committee about this today."

Still, the latest delay in getting Afghanistan's warring sides to hammer out a peace deal underscored the difficulties the Biden administration and NATO are facing in orchestrating an orderly exit from conflict-scarred Afghanistan.

The conference was to have started Saturday under the sponsorship of the United Nations, Turkey and Qatar. Turkey's foreign minister said the conference was delayed until after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in mid-May.

Just hours before the announcement of the postponement, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of Afghan security personnel, wounding seven people in the capital Kabul. The Interior Ministry said civilians and security personnel were among the wounded.

The attack was the first in weeks in the capital, even as targeted killings have escalated and Afghanistan's security personnel have come under relentless attacks by Taliban insurgents. Recent months have also seen an increase in government bombing raids on suspected Taliban positions and increased raids by Afghan special forces.

Residents fear the attack could be a harbinger of what's to come as foreign troops prepare to begin their final withdrawal from Afghanistan. No one took immediate responsibility for the attack.

Cavusoglu said the conference was postponed because of "lack of clarity" by the participants, without elaborating.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement Wednesday that the conference will be held at "a later date when conditions for making meaningful progress would be more favorable."

Until now, the Taliban has refused to sign on to the conference, even as Pakistan, where their leadership council resides, has been pressing the hardline Islamic militia to attend.

In Kabul on Wednesday, the Council for National Reconciliation, tasked with negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, blamed the Islamic insurgents' "lack of cooperation and readiness" for the delay, saying they would meet in the coming days to plot their way forward.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry reaffirmed its support for the peace conference in Turkey, saying "there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan."

The Taliban has accused Washington of breaching an agreement signed last year under which the U.S. was to have withdrawn the last of its troops by May 1.

But President Joe Biden, who inherited that deal with the Taliban from his predecessor, last week said the remaining estimated 2,500 troops would begin leaving on May 1. All American and NATO soldiers would be gone by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist assault on the U.S. that launched the U.S.-led invasion to hunt down al Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden.

On Sunday, the Taliban issued an English-language statement on its Al Emara site, indicating it was not ready to attend the conference. It claimed that a powerful propaganda campaign had been launched, hyping expectations that a peace deal would be reached at the end of the planned 10-day meeting.

The statement said this was an attempt "to push the Taliban, willingly or unwillingly, to a rushed decision which was needed by America." It alleged that the goal of the conference was to "complete a for-show road map before the withdrawal of foreign forces."

In Kabul, Afghan government-allied negotiators had anticipated a delay as none had received an invitation to the conference and several were without visas to Turkey.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price would not confirm the postponement but said the U.S. would continue diplomatic efforts to reach a peace deal.

"When it comes to the talks in Istanbul, this gets to the point that, from the very earliest days of the Biden administration, we have recognized ... that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and only through a political settlement and a comprehensive ceasefire will we be able to support a resolution that brings a security, stability, and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan," Price said in a statement.