US President Donald Trump in Washington, the US, November 13 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA
US President Donald Trump in Washington, the US, November 13 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA

Washington/Brussels — Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg warned on Tuesday that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan prematurely risks a resurgence of international terrorism as US President Donald Trump is expected to issue a formal order drawing down American forces.

Nato has about 12,000 multinational troops in Afghanistan to train and assist Afghan security forces, and the organisation is committed to funding them to the end of 2024. The US contributes troops and logistical support.

“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in an e-mailed statement. “Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands.” He said Islamic state, “could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq”.

Trump is poised to order a drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country by January 15, a US defence official said, as the president works to deliver on his long-time pledge to exit from “endless wars”.

US central command has received an informal warning order, according to the official. The expected order, reported on Monday by CNN, would reduce troops from about 4,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 in Iraq before Trump leaves office.

Republican criticism

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 on 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 [Islamic State] 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 harbour international terrorists after the September 11 attacks in the US

Afghan mission

“We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a co-ordinated 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 US, 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 defence and sometimes threatened to quit the alliance.

Stoltenberg has praised Biden as a “strong supporter” of the defence grouping.

Trump’s move comes after he fired defence 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 defence minister Asadullah Khalid told the Afghan parliament on Tuesday there was no concern about the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.

“I don’t see any clear indication that the US or Nato forces will fully withdraw from 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 in October by national security advisor Robert O’Brien, though it stops short of a tweet by Trump also in October expressing an expectation that US troops there would be home by Christmas.

In a memorandum issued on Monday, the acting defence secretary Chris Miller said his goal is to “bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens”.

Until now, US officials have maintained that the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan must be “conditions-based” 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 US killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who oversaw his country’s foreign military operations, at Baghdad’s airport.

Bloomberg

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