NATO flag lowering ceremony in Afghanistan cancelled after confusion over what it signifies
The incident comes amid uncertainty surrounding Washington's withdrawal from its so-called "endless" military engagement in Afghanistan, and how US-funded contractors will then provide support to Afghan security forces - support widely deemed critical.
Analysts fear Afghanistan may descend further into instability once US and NATO troops leave, which is slated for September but appears on track to be completed by mid-July, according to Pentagon officials.
The flag-lowering ceremony on Friday was meant to mark a gathering of 13 NATO partners before US-led coalition forces leave, to recognise the respective contribution of those nations to Afghanistan, three defence officials told NBC News.
However, it was interpreted by some as signalling an end to NATO's "Resolute Support" mission to train and advise Afghan security forces, as well as the closure of headquarters. This prompted its cancellation hours before it was due to begin and scaled-down alternative is now likely to be held at another date due, the officials said.
As the US military continues to move its hardware out of the country, around 18,000 US-funded contractors providing maintenance services to Afghan forces for their aircraft and ground vehicles have also been ordered to leave.
Washington’s remaining embassy staff in Kabul are under lockdown after the diplomatic compound witnessed a surge in Covid-19 infections, including one death.
The closure complicates the already thorny issue of processing visas for Afghan translators who worked with US and NATO forces as interpreters and translators and fear Taliban reprisals beyond September.