NATO, acting US Pentagon chief discuss Afghanistan
BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has spoken to the new acting U.S. defense secretary about the alliance’s commitment to stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, his spokeswoman said Monday, amid speculation that President Donald Trump might order a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops in the country.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Stoltenberg held talks with Christopher Miller on Friday about the 30-nation U.S.-led military alliance’s “agenda, including the situation in Afghanistan,” and that “NATO’s position hasn’t changed” on its security role in the conflict-ravaged country.
“No NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. At the same time, we want to preserve the gains made with such sacrifice, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that can attack the United States or any other NATO ally,” Lungescu said.
NATO took charge of the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after a U.S-led coalition ousted the Taliban for harboring former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In 2014, it began to train and advise Afghan security forces, but has gradually pulled troops out in line with a U.S.-brokered peace deal.
“We support the Afghanistan peace process, and as part of it, we continue to adjust our presence,” Lungescu said. She noted that NATO has reduced its presence “to under 12,000 troops, and more than half of these are non-U.S. forces.”
Miller stirred additional speculation about a possible Trump administration move to fully withdraw from Afghanistan in coming weeks when he wrote in a letter to all U.S. Defense Department employees last Friday, “All wars must end.” Without specifically citing Afghanistan, he appeared to indicate that a full withdrawal might be in the offing.
“Ending wars requires compromise and partnership,” he wrote. “We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
On the other hand, he also wrote that it was too early to abandon “the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001,” adding: “This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
Americans often make up at least half of the troops participating in the Resolute Support mission. Around 8,000 U.S. troops were involved in August. NATO allies and their partners rely on U.S. air power, transport, logistics and medical assistance to operate. It’s unlikely that the mission could function or even leave without significant U.S. help.
Lungescu said that NATO allies “will continue to consult on the future of our mission in Afghanistan, and we stand ready to further adjust our mission, in a coordinated manner and based on conditions on the ground.”
Violence and chaos have increased in Afghanistan in recent months even as government negotiators and the Taliban are meeting in Qatar to find an end to decades of relentless war in Afghanistan. The two sides have made little progress.
At least two government security troops were killed and four others wounded on Friday in a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul. No one immediately claimed responsibility, though suspicion immediately fell on the Taliban.
Trump tweeted on Oct. 7 that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.” The U.S. armed forces were blindsided by the claim, as were NATO allies.
Last week, Trump fired U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, installing three staunch loyalists in top defense jobs, with Miller, who mostly recently served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting defense secretary.
Esper had worked with military leaders to talk Trump out of complete troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.