By Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - New Zealand said on Wednesday it will pull out its last six troops from Afghanistan by May, the first foreign government to confirm a withdrawal since peace talks began and coming at an uncertain period for the process as violence rises.
Three of the troops are deployed to the Afghanistan National Army Officer Academy and three to the NATO Resolute Support Mission Headquarters.
"After 20 years of a NZDF presence in Afghanistan, it is now time to conclude our deployment," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.
Despite New Zealand's small presence, experts said the announcement, which comes the same day NATO defence ministers are meeting to assess plans for Afghanistan, was an important symbolic milestone.
"At a moment when all key stakeholders ... are keen to know what the foreign troop posture will be, it's significant that the first NATO partner since the Doha deal has said it's leaving," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, adding it was a "small propaganda victory" for the insurgent Taliban.
The United States signed a troop-withdrawal deal in Doha last year with the Taliban that called for a reduction in violence by all sides. Peace talks have largely stalled in recent weeks.
New Zealand is considered a close partner of the alliance and a NATO official told Reuters they welcomed the "the long-standing valuable contributions" made by New Zealand.
NATO defence ministers this week are taking part in a virtual conference that will discuss what their plans are for Afghanistan as violence escalates.
Sources told Reuters last month that foreign troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the troop-withdrawal agreement. A final decision is not expected until Washington completes a review of its plans.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Twitter he welcomed the announcement.
"We urge all countries that have exhausted their troops in a long and unwinnable war in Afghanistan to take similar steps," he said.
New Zealand had deployed more than 3,500 defence and other agency personnel to Afghanistan since 2001, with 10 New Zealanders killed.
(Editing by Sam Holmes and Nick Macfie)