NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said ahead of talks by NATO foreign ministers that the alliance is struggling with a dilemma over its future in Afghanistan.
Stoltenberg made the remarks during a virtual press conference from Brussels on November 30, a day before NATO foreign ministers are due to start a two-day videoconference about the future of the alliance. His remarks also came as the United States is preparing to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and as attacks by the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan continue. "We face a difficult dilemma. Whether to leave, and risk that Afghanistan becomes once again a safe haven for international terrorists, or stay, and risk a longer mission, with renewed violence," Stoltenberg said. "Whatever path we choose, it is important that we do so together, in a coordinated and deliberate way." More than 17 years after taking over the leadership of international security efforts in Afghanistan, NATO now has about 11,000 troops from dozens of countries stationed in Afghanistan. Most are from Europe and other NATO partner countries. Their current mandate is to help train and advise Afghanistan's own national security forces. But NATO also relies heavily on the U.S. military for air support, transport, and logistics. "The United States has recently decided to further reduce its troop numbers," Stoltenberg said. "But NATO's training mission continues, with over half of the forces from European allies and partner nations." "No one wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary," he said. "In the months ahead, we will continue to assess our presence based on conditions on the ground." Some experts say NATO's European members would find it difficult even to leave Afghanistan without U.S. support. They say U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull almost half of the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by mid-January leaves other NATO allies in a difficult position. Trump's unilateral decision to leave only 2,500 U.S. troops as part of NATO's Afghanistan mission has allied military planners trying to figure out whether NATO can continue to operate in Kabul and other major Afghan cities. For now, NATO diplomats say they have enough "enablers" to do the job. Meanwhile, Afghan officials have also expressed concerns that the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could strengthen the Taliban's negotiating position in peace talks. Under a peace deal reached between the United States and the Taliban -- without the involvement of other NATO allies or the Afghan government -- all foreign troops should leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, if security conditions on the ground permit. NATO defense ministers are expected to make a final decision in February about the future of its mission in Afghanistan, known as Resolute Support. By that time, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have taken office. European diplomats say they anticipate that the diplomatic tone from Washington will change under Biden, but probably not the intention for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. Amid the uncertainty, there has been a rise in militant violence. There also has been a surge of attacks by the Taliban against Afghan government security forces since the start of peace talks in September. Islamic State (IS) militants have carried out horrific recent attacks -- notably an assault on Kabul University that killed 22 people, most of them students. "We have seen over the last months and weeks several attacks," Stoltenberg said on November 30, noting that some were carried out by the Taliban while IS extremists claimed responsibility for others. "But we know is that the Taliban is responsible for attacks and the level of violence is far too high," Stoltenberg said.
Moscow's 'Growing Military Activity'
Stoltenberg said another key issue that NATO foreign ministers will discuss during their December 1-2 videoconference is the Russian "military buildup around the alliance" and "what more we should do to respond to Russia's growing military activity, and to maintain the arms-control regime -- including limitations on nuclear warheads, as the New START treaty is due to expire next February." "Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and fielding new missiles," Stoltenberg said. "It is deploying more forces in our neighborhood, from the High North to Syria and Libya. We also see an increased Russian presence as a result of the crises in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh." Stoltenberg said the NATO foreign ministers also will be joined by the foreign ministers of Georgia and Ukraine "in a separate session" in order "to address the security situation in the Black Sea region and our support for these two valued partners."