World Politics

NATO is 'working 24/7' to get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, its chief says

Key Points
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said countries that have offered to receive refugees include Poland, Hungary and Canada.
  • There are "serious and hard questions" to be asked about how the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was executed, he said.
  • But, staying in the country meant there was a risk of an "open-ended military conflict with more casualties, more violence" and perhaps the need to send more troops in, he said.
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Priority is to get people out of Afghanistan, NATO chief says

The main focus in Afghanistan now is to evacuate people from the country, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, as reports of violence and repression continue to emerge despite promises of peace from the Taliban.

"We are working 24/7 to get as many people out as possible," he told CNBC's Hadley Gamble on Friday.

U.S. President Joe Biden said more than 18,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the end of July, and 5,700 in the last 24 hours as of Friday afternoon in the U.S. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said most of the evacuees are Afghan nationals.

At NATO's foreign minister meeting on Friday, many allies offered to receive refugees on a temporary basis or resettle some Afghans more permanently, Stoltenberg said. The countries include Poland, Hungary, Canada, and "many others," he said.

Afghan people sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan's 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city's airport trying to flee the group's feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.
Wakil Kohsar | AFP | Getty Images

Afghanistan fell under Taliban control after the Islamist militant group seized the capital of Kabul earlier in August. The Taliban started making rapid battlefield advances in the country since the U.S. announced in April that NATO and American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Now, nearly the whole nation is now under the insurgents' control.

Since then, people have been scrambling to leave the country.

Stoltenberg said members of NATO are concerned about getting their staff and other personnel out of Afghanistan, but also want to help locals leave — many have supported U.S.-led efforts in the country over the years.

"We have been able to get many out already, but there are many more we need to help," he said.

'Hard choice'

The West has been criticized for the chaos that unfolded in Afghanistan after the Taliban rapidly took over country, including the presidential palace.

NATO and President Biden have blamed the local Afghan government for failing to stand against the Islamic militant group.

Stoltenberg said NATO — a 30-member military alliance — made a "very difficult and hard choice" when deciding to withdraw those troops, a move that has been branded an abandonment by some observers.

There are "serious and hard questions" to be asked about how that withdrawal was executed, he told CNBC.

But, staying in the country meant there was a risk of an "open-ended military conflict with more casualties, more violence" and perhaps the need to send more troops in, he said. On the other hand, leaving meant that the Taliban could return to power.

"We were very clear about the risks of ending our military mission, but what we didn't anticipate, what came as a surprise was the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government and security forces," he said. "But we also need to look at NATO and our engagement and the hard lessons to be learnt."

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Evacuations resume after Kabul airport cleared of thousands fleeing Taliban rule

Stoltenberg said the main goal of entering Afghanistan was to prevent international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS from operating in the country, and that aim was achieved.

The Taliban's promises

NATO has been clear that it expected the Taliban to keep to its "commitment" that it will not allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists, Stoltenberg said.

"We expect them to live up to that commitment, but we need to stay vigilant," he said, adding that NATO members have said they can strike terrorist groups in Afghanistan "even without thousands of boots on the ground."

The Taliban have presented a conciliatory image, but reports of deaths and beatings have surfaced over the past few days. Asked whether NATO believes it can work with the group, Stoltenberg said the alliance will "judge them on their actions, and not … by their words."

But he acknowledged that, without troops in the country, NATO will have less influence than before.

"But regardless of what kind of government we get in Kabul, allies are ready to use the leverage they have," he told CNBC. That includes diplomatic, political, economic and financial tools that can be used to support the development of an Afghanistan where humans rights, including women's rights, are respected, he said.

— CNBC's Natasha Turak and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.