NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that the military alliance faces a difficult dilemma over its future in Afghanistan.
“Whether to leave, and risk that Afghanistan becomes once again a safe haven for international terrorists. Or stay, and risk a longer mission, with renewed violence," Stoltenberg said.
“Whatever path we choose, it is important that we do so together, in a coordinated and deliberate way,” he said.
He said: “First of all, I think we have to understand that NATO has adjusted and changed the number of troops in Afghanistan over many, many years. Not so many years ago, we had more than 100,000 troops in a big combat operation. Then we, after that, we have gradually reduced our presence and now we are, well, let me say, roughly 11,000, but this varies a bit. But roughly 11,000 troops in a Train, Assist and Advise mission. More than half are non-US troops coming from European NATO Allies and partner nations.”
He said it has been a gradual reduction, which has been possible because NATO has invested so much in training the Afghans.
“We have enabled Afghans to protect their own country. And I strongly believe that the best way to stabilize Afghanistan is to train, assist, advise the Afghan security forces so they can be in charge, be responsible for their own country,” he said.
NATO has not only trained Afghan forces but also funds them, he said, and Allies have committed to provide funding through 2024.
He believes that the main issue is that in the US-Taliban agreement, it is stated that all international troops, also NATO troops, should be out of Afghanistan by May 1.
“That’s the reason why we are now faced with a very clear decision, a very difficult choice to be made, which actually represents a dilemma for all of us. And that is either to stay, because we assess that Taliban is not living up to their part of the agreement, not delivering on their promises, but then, of course, risk continued fighting, long-term continued military involvement in Afghanistan; or to leave, but then risk jeopardizing the gains we have made in fighting international terrorism and preventing Afghanistan from being a platform for launching attacks against our countries.”
He also mentioned that in his phone call with President-elect Joe Biden, he underlined the importance of Afghanistan and also pointed out the “dilemma we face, that, of course, there is a price if we decide to stay, but there will also be a price if we decide to leave.”
The US troop withdrawal will, of course, reduce the US presence in Afghanistan, he said, adding: “But the NATO Training Mission will continue in its current configuration, meaning that we will maintain the different bases, including the German-led base in the north, Mazar-e-Sharif, and then the Italian-led in the west, Herat.”
He also said that NATO, together with the new Biden administration, next year, will make an assessment about whether conditions are in place,if the Taliban has delivered what it has promised to a degree that makes it possible for NATO to leave or stay.