Why we're in Afghanistan and what a peace deal could do

This week is a test for peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban have an historic opportunity to show that they have the will and the ability to reduce violence. This would pave the way for negotiations among Afghans for a comprehensive peace agreement.

NATO fully supports the efforts of the United States to find a peaceful solution. These efforts have brought us closer than ever before to an end to decades of conflict in Afghanistan.

Our engagement in Afghanistan is the direct consequence of 9/11, when we triggered our collective defense clause, Article 5, for the first time in history -- in support of the United States. Within days, NATO aircraft were patrolling American skies and within weeks, troops from NATO countries were deployed to Afghanistan to ensure the country would never again become a safe haven for international terrorists.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of troops from Europe and beyond have stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and over one thousand of them have paid the ultimate price. Today, 16,000 troops from 38 NATO Allies and our partner countries remain in Afghanistan as part of our training mission.

NATO Allies and partners also provide critical funding for the brave Afghan security forces. Thanks to our support, they have steadily grown stronger and more professional. Afghan soldiers and police protected last year's presidential elections and continue to take responsibility for security across the country.

Our aim is not to stay in Afghanistan forever, but rather to strengthen the Afghan forces' ability to fight terrorism and to achieve lasting peace. That is why we stand ready to reduce our troop levels in support of the peace process. NATO allies went into Afghanistan together. We will make decisions on our future presence together. And when the time is right, we will leave together. The decision will be conditions-based, because we must make sure that when we eventually leave, we do not allow international terrorists to return.

Thanks to our support over many years, Afghanistan is a different country than what it was twenty years ago. Life expectancy has risen, child mortality has dropped, more young Afghans are in schools and universities, and media freedom has significantly increased, as has women's representation.

I have seen this on my own visits to Afghanistan, in my meetings with Afghans from all walks of life: political and military leaders, special forces and female fighter pilots, journalists and pop stars. Any future peace agreement will only be credible and sustainable if it safeguards the human rights of all Afghans and continues to advance this hard-won progress.

The path to peace is long and hard. There may be setbacks. But we are at a critical juncture. It is important that all Afghans demonstrate national unity in support of the peace process. This is a time when all responsible political forces must engage in dialogue and unite in pursuit of peace, which is the priority for all Afghans. NATO Allies remain committed to a better future for Afghanistan. The stability of the region and the security of our countries depend on it. And the people of Afghanistan are crying out for it. We must continue to stand by them and help them seize this unique opportunity for peace.

Jens Stoltenberg is the 13th Secretary General of NATO. He has headed the 29-member alliance since 2014 after serving twice as prime minister of Norway. He has frequently visited Afghanistan, where NATO currently has its largest mission. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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