A “hasty” pullout of US and allied troops from Afghanistan could exact a “high price”, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned amid reports US President Donald Trump is expected to withdraw a significant number of US troops from the war-ravaged country in the coming weeks.
“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in a statement on Monday.
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The US troop withdrawal is part of an agreement the outgoing Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February. The Afghan armed group promised to guarantee US security interests.
But since the agreement was signed, the Taliban has carried out numerous attacks on Afghan forces, who are trained by the NATO forces.
The Taliban says the February deal signed in the Qatari capital Doha did not include the Kabul government. The two sides are currently meeting in Doha since September to agree to a lasting peace deal but violence back home has continued, raising doubts about the future of peace in the country.
NATO has fewer than 12,000 troops from dozens of nations in Afghanistan helping to train and advise the national security forces.
US troops frequently make up about half that number, and the 30-nation alliance relies heavily on the US forces for transport, logistics and other support.
Stoltenberg said the country still “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands”.
“And ISIS [ISIL] could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq,” Stoltenberg said.
The warning was unprecedented criticism by Stoltenberg of a Trump decision. Up to now, the NATO secretary-general has been careful to not publicly contest statements by Trump relating to the Alliance.
But after his defeat in US elections this month by Joe Biden, Trump – who remains in power until January 20 next year – fired his defence secretary, Mark Esper, replacing him with Christopher Miller, who said last weekend of American troops in conflicts abroad: “It’s time to come home.”
The expected plans would cut US troop numbers almost in half by January 15, leaving 2,500 troops in the South Asian nation.
US officials said military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawal and an executive order is in the works but has not yet been delivered to commanders.
NATO took charge of the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after a US-led coalition removed the Taliban for harbouring former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.
In 2014, it began to train and advise Afghan security forces but has gradually pulled troops out in line with a US-brokered peace deal.
Stoltenberg said NATO will continue its mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.
“We are also committed to funding them through 2024.”