Nato troops will not be leaving Afghanistan in the near future as the risk of terrorism is still extremely high, the organisation's Secretary General said on Tuesday, as the US is expected to cut its troop number in half by January.
Afghanistan currently hosts an estimated 5,000 US troops, but President Donald Trump is poised to cut numbers by January 15, when Joe Biden takes office, a US defence official said.
US Central Command has received an informal warning order, according to the official.
The drawdown isn't unexpected. Nineteen years after overthrowing the Taliban, the US signed an agreement with the Taliban earlier this year in an effort to end the war in Afghanistan, which included a reduction in troop numbers.
However, this hasty withdrawal has left US allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in a difficult position. Nato supported the 2001 invasion, and has 12,000 multinational troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said withdrawing troops from Afghanistan prematurely risks a resurgence of international terrorism and reaffirmed that the alliance of 30 nation remains committed to Afghanistan.
"We now face a difficult decision," Mr Stoltenberg said in a statement shared with The National, adding that no Nato member wants to stay longer than required.
“But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an unco-ordinated way could be very high,” he said, pointing out that several hundred thousand troops from Europe and beyond stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and “over one thousand of them have paid the ultimate price”.
“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
As a consequence, Nato troops will remain in Afghanistan, he said.
“Even with further US reductions, Nato will continue its mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces,” he said, adding the organisation was committed to funding Afghan forces through to 2024.
Although reassuring, Nato support may not be sufficient following US withdrawal, Dr Jack Watling, research fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, explained.
“The Nato mission is largely on bases delivering training to Afghan forces, and not fighting in combat alongside Afghans.
“So if the US significantly withdraws troops, then Afghans will lose the US forces fighting alongside and a lot of the air support, making them less combat effective in their engagement,” he said. But, Nato presence will prevent Taliban from penetrating certain territories, and perhaps might motivate some of the units to step up, he added.
Nato may eventually consider a slow rolling back of their troops if they feel Afghan forces are able to weather the storm, Mr Watling said.
“Nato doesn’t want to abandon their partners, nor do they want to abandon all the work they’ve done in terms of developing training facilities in the country,” he said.
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,” Mr 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 per cent of operations across the country and only 4 per cent of those need foreign air support.
Mr Stoltenberg has also talked with the new acting US Defence Secretary Christopher Möller and conveyed their concerns and reaffirmed commitments to Afghanistan: “We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a co-ordinated and orderly way. I count on all Nato allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security.”