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NATO gets 1st glimpse of Biden administration at virtual defense summit

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Feb. 10 as President Joe Biden looks on. Photo by Michael Reynolds/UPI
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Feb. 10 as President Joe Biden looks on. Photo by Michael Reynolds/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 17 (UPI) -- The Biden administration and new U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made their first introduction to NATO on Wednesday at a two-day summit that's expected to focus heavily on Afghanistan.

Austin and other NATO defense ministers convened remotely for the first major European event since President Joe Biden took office last month, and was the alliance's introduction to the new administration.

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For four years, NATO often found itself on the receiving end of criticisms from former President Donald Trump, particularly over the defense funding of the other 29 member states. Trump also expressed an interest in withdrawing the United States from NATO, which was created after World War II as a collective defense coalition.

During the two sessions on the first day of the summit, Austin reaffirmed Biden's intention to revitalize the U.S.-NATO relationship and that its commitment to the collective defense article under the alliance's founding treaty is "ironclad," John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

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A Defense Department readout of the ministerial also said Austin called NATO "the bedrock" of enduring security in the trans-Atlantic, calling it "the bulwark of our shared values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law."

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The Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban last year that called for the total withdrawal of U.S. troops, in exchange for a pledge from the Afghan government not to work with terrorist organizations.

American forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 1, per its Taliban peace deal. Biden's administration has said it will review that withdrawal date before deciding whether to stick with it.

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U.S. troops have had a continuous presence in Afghanistan since they overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 as part of the war on terror.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said while NATO supports peace in Afghanistan, the level of violence remains unacceptably high.

"While no ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, we will not leave before the time is right," Stoltenberg said in a statement this week.

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"So ministers will continue to assess the situation on the ground and monitor developments very closely."

Following the first day of the summit, Stoltenberg, who was in Kabul when the deal was signed, told reporters during a press conference that there is a May 1 deadline but the promise to leave Afghanistan is based on conditions being met.

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"And Taliban has to meet their commitments," he said. "And what NATO does now is that we, first of all, do whatever we can to support the peace process and the full implementation of the deal. We will only leave when the time is right."

He said NATO allies invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States but they have adjusted their presence together, and he welcomes the commitment Austin made toward the alliance.

"That demonstrates the value of NATO also for the United States, because the United States, when they went into Afghanistan, they didn't go alone," he said. "They have been supported by NATO allies with tens of thousands of troops for now close to two decades."

Concerning the issues of burden sharing, Stoltenberg said the message has been consistent under both Republican and Democratic leadership in the United States: That it needs to be fairer, which he agrees with.

"I tell the Europeans that -- and they agree -- that we need to invest more in defense, not to please the United States, but because it is in our security interest to invest more," he said. "Because we face a more dangerous world, with a more brutal form of terrorism."

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Another matter expected to be raised at the summit is rising violence in Iraq by militias aligned with Iran. A civilian contractor was killed and six others were injured in a rocket attack there on Monday.

Biden, who previously worked with NATO at the executive level while former President Barack Obama's vice president, has sounded a more cooperative tone with NATO than did his predecessor -- but is expected to continue Trump's push for member states to contribute more financially.

Member nations are expected to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.

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