By: Monitoring Desk
The Biden administration is facing increased pressure from European allies growing impatient over whether Washington will soon remove its troops from Afghanistan, a move that would free NATO members to reposition forces to counter Russia in their backyard.
“The majority of the troops in Afghanistan now, they are from Europe and from partner nations, so the majority of the troops are non-U.S.,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference Monday morning, in advance of NATO ministerial meetings and the arrival of Secretary of State Antony Blinken Tuesday. President Biden’s hand-picked defense secretary, former U.S. Central Command chief Lloyd Austin, has said NATO would follow American forces out of Afghanistan should the commander in chief opt for a full withdrawal.
NATO allies were triggered to help defend America by Article 5 of the alliance’s charter when al Qaeda struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. In the intervening two decades, Russia has maneuvered closer to NATO’s southern and southeastern flanks and ramped up cyber and hybrid warfare. China has infiltrated information technology with its 5G systems, and new terrorist threats have emerged.
Alliance members now want peace talks to succeed to free up their military personnel and resources to protect themselves better back home from the ever-growing reach of the Kremlin.
“Afghan National Security Forces, they are capable, they are professional, and they are now actually responsible for the security in Afghanistan themselves,” Stoltenberg said. “The ongoing peace talks are the best way to preserve the gains made over the last two decades.”
The NATO secretary-general indicated that the alliance does not mind paying the bills until 2024. But he said its members are growing impatient over providing security.
Defense Secretary Austin met with NATO allies in February and visited Afghanistan himself Sunday as just over a month remains for the U.S. to fulfill a peace agreement signed with the Taliban, inked under the Trump administration. It calls for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from that country in just over a month.
NATO’s roughly 7,500 troops from 36 countries would follow, leaving the Afghan Armed Forces to fend for themselves come May 1.
After 20 years of war, more than 2,300 American lives lost, and countless more casualties, the security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious, according to the congressionally appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Conditions of the peace deal, such as reducing violence and breaking with al Qaeda, have not been met by the Taliban. Still, it will be up to Biden to decide to comply with the withdrawal or put troops on the front line to face renewed Taliban violence.
The defense secretary, who only once spoke to members of the press at the Pentagon, was forced to address traveling reporters over the weekend. The retired four-star general took four questions from reporters in Afghanistan but revealed little of his thinking, or how he might advise Biden.
“That process of reviewing conditions that have been met or not met is ongoing,” Austin said Sunday, declining to respond directly as to whether the Taliban were meeting the publicly known conditions of the peace deal.
“What I will say is that it’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” he added. “We’d really like to see that violence come down. And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work.”
Austin’s surprise visit to Kabul following stops in Asia included meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. Scott Miller. The defense secretary said the meetings were helpful in informing the Biden team’s review.
Austin and Biden spoke by phone, and the defense secretary gave the president “a full report from his trip to Kabul,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.
Biden may have the opportunity to explain for himself in coming days what he plans to do in Afghanistan.
Until now, the president has avoided direct questioning from the media, but on Thursday, he will hold his first news conference. Biden has only hedged on Afghanistan in the few interviews he has done.
“I’m in the process of making that decision now as to when they’ll leave,” Biden told ABC News last week. “The fact is that that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out.”
In a February visit to the Pentagon, Biden called for a “responsible end” to the conflict, a slight to Donald Trump for the perceived disorderly drawdown of troops from the country in the final weeks of his administration. It is widely believed that former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was dismissed in part because he disagreed with Trump’s call to draw down, sending the White House a memo advising against it.
Trump decided to reduce troops nonetheless, from 4,500 in November to 2,500 by the time he left office.
Former commanders expressed concern that the number of troops is barely enough to protect American soldiers, let alone pursue a mission to root out remnants of terrorists in the country and come to the rescue of Afghan security forces when they are repeatedly attacked by the Taliban.
For the past year, the U.S. has suffered no casualties in Afghanistan, and the Taliban have refrained from direct attacks on the U.S. and coalition forces, in accordance with the peace deal. If the U.S. bucks the peace deal, the Taliban have promised that will change.
For now, Austin says the troop levels are enough. But reports of up to 1,000 reinforcements have circulated in recent weeks, although the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge them.
“U.S. forces in Afghanistan remain ready for their current mission set and whatever options are decided on,” spokesman Maj. Rob Lodewick told the Washington Examiner Monday.
“We are not going to undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal, and any changes that we make are in full consultation with our allies and partners,” he added. “No decision has been made regarding future force levels in Afghanistan.”
Prior drawdowns have also included corresponding reductions in equipment, infrastructure, and personnel, he explained.
Peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Moscow last week made no discernible progress. Another meeting planned for Turkey in the coming weeks is similarly not expected to change the situation.
Instead, the reality may change drastically if the Taliban detects the U.S. is not withdrawing forces. Still, Austin said he is not concerned about Miller’s ability to protect the small footprint of American troops in the country.
“I’m confident in his ability to accomplish his mission with the resources he has, and I have great confidence in his ability to protect our troops,” Austin told journalists. “There’s no question that Gen. Miller is more than equipped in terms of personal attributes and resources that he has on-hand to accomplish that.”