KABUL, AUG 18 (DNA) – NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday said the alliance was working around the clock to help coordinate air assets that can complete evacuations from Kabul “as soon as possible.”

Talking to reporters during a virtual press conference, Stoltenberg said NATO’s focus right now was to ensure the safe departure of personnel from allied and partner countries, and of the Afghans who helped them.

“NATO has been working round the clock to maintain operations at Kabul international airport,“ he said, calling the situation in Afghanistan as extremely serious and unpredictable. “Kabul has fallen, and the Taliban have taken control of most of the country. I am deeply saddened by what I see unfolding in Afghanistan”.

The NATO chief said around 800 NATO civilian personnel had remained to provide key functions under very challenging circumstances. He thanked military forces of NATO allies, in particular Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom for their vital role in securing the airport in Kabul where operations were now gradually resuming.

He said during today’s meeting allies announced that they were sending additional airplanes. “We have also maintained our diplomatic presence. Our Senior Civilian Representative Ambassador Pontecorvo and his team have been working closely with allies and the rest of the international community to coordinate and facilitate the evacuation”.

He said they remained committed to completing evacuations including of Afghan colleagues as soon as possible. The NATO chief also asked the Taliban to respect and facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave. “All Afghan men, women and children deserve to live in safety and dignity.

There must be a peaceful transfer of power to an inclusive government with no revenge or retribution”. Stoltenberg said a government that does not respect the fundamental rights of all Afghans and reinstates the reign of fear, risks international isolation.

He said the United States agreed with the Taliban last year that US troops would withdraw by May and after many rounds of consultations, all allies agreed to follow the US decision.

“Ending our military mission was not easy. We were faced with a serious dilemma. Either leave, and risk seeing the Taliban regain control. Or stay, and risk renewed attacks, and an open-ended combat mission.”

“We never intended to stay in Afghanistan forever. Over the past few years, from over 100,000 troops we went down to less than 10,000 – and now to zero.”  But, he said, what they saw in the last few weeks was a military and political collapse at a speed which had not been anticipated.

“Parts of the Afghan security forces fought bravely. But they were unable to secure the country. Because ultimately, the Afghan political leadership failed to stand up to the Taliban and to achieve the peaceful solution that Afghans desperately wanted.”

This failure of Afghan leadership led to the tragedy we are witnessing today, he said, stressing the need for an honest, clear-eyed assessment of NATO’s own engagement in Afghanistan. “Despite our considerable investment and sacrifice over two decades, the collapse was swift and sudden. There are many lessons to be learned.”

He said due to their military presence and the support of the international community, a new generation of men and women had grown up in a new Afghanistan to get education, take part in the political process, run their own businesses, and enjoy a vibrant media scene.

“Today’s Afghanistan is very different to the Afghanistan of 2001. So those gains cannot be easily reversed.” Stoltenberg said the world will be watching and must continue to support a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. = DNA