By Sabine Siebold
(Reuters) -The Taliban must not let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism again, NATO said on Tuesday, warning that the alliance after its withdrawal still has the military power to strike any terrorist group from a distance.
"Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in his first news conference since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
"We have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again try to establish themselves and plan, organise attacks against NATO allies and their countries," he added.
The fight against al Qaeda, the militant organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks whose leadership was hosted by the Taliban, was the main reason for the West's intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 in what was to become NATO's first major operation beyond Europe.
But as the alliance wrapped up military operations this summer after almost two decades, the Taliban rapidly advanced, capturing the biggest cities in days.
The sudden takeover of the capital, Kabul, caused thousands of people to flee to the city's airport, which is still being held by the U.S. military, desperate to get on evacuation flights.
In Brussels, a female Afghan journalist on the verge of tears asked Stoltenberg what the West would do for all those vulnerable back in her country, leaving the NATO chief visibly moved.
Stoltenberg called on the Taliban to facilitate the departure of all those who want to leave the country, and said that Western defence allies had agreed to send more evacuation planes to Kabul.
At the same time, he expressed frustration with the Afghan leadership, blaming it for the Taliban's easy success.
"Part of the Afghan security forces fought bravely," Stoltenberg said. "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."
(Additional reporting by John Chalmers, Marine Strauss, Foo Yun Chee, Francesco Guarascio; Editing by John Chalmers and Jonathan Oatis)