NATO mulls sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan

  • As Turkey says: No question of breaking European Union ties

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today that military chiefs wanted a few thousand more troops from the alliance to be deployed in Afghanistan to help combat Islamist insurgents.

The troops were needed to train local forces, Stoltenberg told reporters following talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Downing Street office in London.

“We have received a request from our military authorities to increase our military presence in Afghanistan with a few thousand troops,” he said.

“We are now assessing that request. We will make decisions on the scale and the scope of the mission within weeks.

“But this is not about returning back to a combat operation in Afghanistan.

“It will be a train, assist and advise operation, because I strongly believe that the best answer we have against terrorism, the best weapon we have against terrorism, is to train local forces against terrorism and to stave ISIL (the Islamic State jihadist group) off.”

There are currently around 13,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan training local forces.

The issue will be high on the agenda at the NATO annual summit in Brussels on May 25.

US authorities have written to NATO allies and partners about the future of the 28-country alliance’s presence in Afghanistan.

Stoltenberg said: “We will address our presence in Afghanistan at the leaders’ meeting but we will also address what NATO can do to step up its efforts to fight terrorism, including providing support to the counter-ISIL coalition.”

“I strongly believe that the best thing you can do to fight against terrorism is to train local forces, enabling them to stabilise their own country and to fight terrorism themselves,” he said.

Since NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended in 2014, Taliban attacks have intensified and Afghan military and civilian casualties have risen.

Taliban dressed in Afghan army uniforms last month slaughtered at least 135 young recruits at a northern base.

The US, which is also targeting Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on the group’s hideouts earlier this month.

A British Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The UK keeps its contribution in Afghanistan under regular review to ensure it remains suited for the needs of the mission.”

In the meantime, it is out of the question for Turkey to break off relations with the EU and it will press ahead with its membership bid, Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik said on Wednesday.

EU ties with Turkey have been strained to breaking point by a massive crackdown following a failed July coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and were tested again after a referendum last month gave him increased powers.

But Celik insisted none of this should be allowed to stand in the way of improved relations and ultimate membership of the bloc.

“We want to move forward within the context of full membership. There is no question of breaking off relations with the EU,” Celik said after talks with EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini in Brussels.

“The picture that emerges after the referendum shows the democratic power of Turkey. This needs to be taken account of well,” he said in remarks made in Brussels and broadcast on Turkish television.

The minister repeated that Turkey faced a major terrorist threat but had got through the coup attempt with “a democratic self confidence.”

Urging Brussels to open new chapters in Ankara’s long- stalled accession talks, Celik said: “We need to come to an era where relations are tighter.”

A spokeswoman for Mogherini said the two had had “a frank, positive and constructive discussion and talked about the present and future perspective for EU-Turkey relations.”

The spokeswoman gave no further details.

Mogherini said last month the accession talks had not been halted — despite calls by some EU member states — but progress depended on Ankara meeting the rights and democratic norms expected of all candidate countries.

Celik is due to meet European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos later today.

In March last year, the EU signed an accord with Turkey to speed up the accession talks, along with visa liberalisation and billions in aid in return for Ankara halting a flood of migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, coming to Europe.

Erdogan and top Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened to rip up the deal because of the lack of progress in the membership talks.