NATO opens the first chapter of its relations with the Joe Biden government on Wednesday with an agenda loaded with issues of extreme sensitivity, such as the exit from Afghanistan, the eternal budget problems and the aggravation of tensions with Turkey.
The defense ministers of the military alliance will meet for virtually two days, in an opportunity to clear the table of the misunderstandings that arose during Donald Trump’s administration in Washington.
The most serious misunderstanding occurred when Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and, marginalizing his NATO allies, opened negotiations with the Taliban.
The Biden administration is reviewing whether to stick to the May 1 deadline for withdrawal or risk a bloody reaction from insurgents by staying.
The new US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, will address his 29 counterparts from Washington. No firm announcement is expected Thursday after the discussions, but other NATO members insist they are willing to stay.
“While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday.
– “Commitment to NATO –
The fate of the military mission in Afghanistan will be determined by the US decision on whether the Taliban have reneged on their promises in the peace deal by escalating violent attacks and failing to advance talks with the Kabul government.
The Taliban have launched a series of offensives that threaten at least two provincial capitals, and have already warned NATO ministers not to seek a “continuation of occupation and war” by staying in Afghan territory.
The Atlantic Alliance desperately seeks to prevent the country from becoming a sanctuary for groups like Al Qaida again, two decades after the start of military operations following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
“This war cannot be won, but NATO cannot afford to lose it, sadly,” said a European diplomat.
A study ordered by the US Congress has called for a delay in the withdrawal, warning that it would effectively give a victory to the Taliban.
Trump reduced the number of US troops during the last days in office to 2,500, his lowest number since the start of the war in 2001.
On his side, the new US secretary will seek to overcome divisions.
“This meeting will be an important opportunity for Secretary Austin to send some important messages about the United States’ commitment to NATO,” said a US official.
– Turkey and budget –
Beyond the differences regarding Afghanistan, the agenda of the meetings should also focus on the difficult relations with Turkey.
The link between Washington and Ankara has been through times of extreme difficulty in recent years, and even the United States applied sanctions for Turkey’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense system.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday accused the United States of “supporting Turkish terrorists” from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), accused of having executed 13 captive Turks in northern Iraq for several years.
Turkey denounces its allies’ support for Syrian Kurdish militias close to the PKK, against whom the Turkish authorities have long fought a fierce fight.
These fighters are the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and participate in the international coalition formed against the Islamic State (IS) group.
The third difficult knot to untie is financial. For four years, Europeans and Canadians endured the slapping of Americans on the wrist for their low defense spending, in verbal clashes with Trump that were truly humiliating.
Stoltenberg, who once defended Trump’s arguments without batting an eye, now admits they were “unfair.”