Blinken looks to rebuild US ties on first NATO, EU visit

BRUSSELS (AFP) – United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched a European charm offensive on his first official trip to Brussels yesterday, to rebuild ties with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and the European Union (EU).

Washington’s top diplomat will attend a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers and hold talks with EU chiefs as he tries to mend relations that were strained under former US president Donald Trump.

High on the agenda for NATO is the future of the alliance’s 9,600-strong mission in Afghanistan, after Trump struck a deal with the Taleban to withdraw troops by May 1.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, rear center, waits for the start of a round table meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. AP

Allies are waiting for new US leader Joe Biden to make a decision on whether he is sticking to that date – but no concrete announcement is expected from Blinken.

“There are no easy choices and for now, all options remain open,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference. “The security situation is difficult and we will take all the necessary measures to keep our troops safe.”

Biden said last week that it would be “tough” for Washington to meet the looming deadline.

That prompted outrage from the Taleban, who warned that the US would be “responsible for the consequences”.

NATO allies have said they are willing to stay in Afghanistan longer, if Washington decides to remain as well.

There are some 2,500 US troops in the country and American support is vital to keep the NATO mission going.

“We went in together. We will adjust together as we have over the years. And when the time is right, we will leave together,” US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker said.

Last year’s deal saw the Taleban commit to peace efforts and cutting violence – but the US has complained that talks have stalled and bloodshed flared. Washington is scrambling to inject fresh impetus into a peace process that has dragged, and Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Kabul on Sunday.

The US and its allies are desperate to avoid seeing Afghanistan slip back into being a haven for terror groups, two decades after they intervened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The visit by Blinken to Brussels aims to make good on Biden’s assurances that the US hopes to strengthen the “transatlantic partnership” after the Trump years.