Washington: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Tuesday that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan prematurely risks a resurgence of international terrorism as U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to issue a formal order drawing down American forces.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization currently has about 12,000 multinational troops in Afghanistan to train and assist Afghan security forces, and the organization is committed to funding them through 2024. The U.S. contributes troops and logistical support.
“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in an emailed statement. “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands.” He said Islamic State, or ISIS, “could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”
Trump is poised to order a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country by Jan. 15, a U.S. defense official said, as the president works to deliver on his longtime pledge to exit from “endless wars.”
U.S. Central Command has received an informal warning order, according to the official. The expected order, reported Monday by CNN, would reduce troops from about 4,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 in Iraq before Trump leaves office.
Trump’s deadline would come five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Pentagon officials didn’t immediately comment when asked about the drawdowns.
But the planned troop cuts drew sharp criticism from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican, usually a staunch Trump ally, said on the Senate floor Monday that there’s little support in Congress for “simply walking away” from the conflicts.
“The consequences of a premature American exit” from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
Stoltenberg noted that NATO went into Afghanistan to prevent that nation from continuing to harbor international terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
“We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way,” Stoltenberg said. “I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security.’
The criticism of Trump’s plans marks a change in tone for Stoltenberg as he prepares for Biden to lead the U.S., which dominates the 30-nation NATO. Stoltenberg successfully maintained relations with Trump, offering frequent praise of the president even as Trump blasted NATO members for spending too little on defense and sometimes threatened to quit the alliance.
Stoltenberg has praised Biden as a “strong supporter” of the defense grouping.
Trump’s move comes after he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and replaced other top officials at the Pentagon with loyalists last week. Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month expressing concerns about additional troop cuts, the Washington Post has reported, citing two senior officials it didn’t identify.
In Kabul, Acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid told the Afghan parliament Tuesday there was no concern about the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.
“I don’t see any clear indication that the U.S. or NATO forces will fully withdraw the country,” Khalid said. “Some other countries in NATO are still considering whether to remain or leave,” he said, noting Afghan forces were in charge of 96% of operations across the country and only 4% of those need foreign air support.
The reduced troop level for Afghanistan is consistent with public statements last month by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, although it stops short of a tweet by Trump last month expressing an expectation that U.S. troops there would be home by Christmas.
In a memorandum issued on Monday, the acting defense secretary, Chris Miller, said his goal was to “bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
Until now, U.S. officials have maintained that the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan must be “conditions-based,” in order to maintain pressure for Taliban forces to reach a peace accord with the Afghan government.
In Iraq, a reduction from about 5,200 troops was announced in September.
In January, Iraq’s parliament had voted to expel American forces amid the uproar after the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who oversaw his country’s foreign military operations, at Baghdad’s airport.
–With assistance from Laura Litvan. -Bloomberg