NATO Eyes Troop Reductions in Afghanistan as U.S. Draws Down


WASHINGTON — Some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are considering withdrawing thousands of their forces from Afghanistan once the United States begins to officially cut its own presence in the country, according to American and European officials.

The Trump administration’s decision to eventually reduce its own forces from roughly 12,000 troops to around 8,500 has triggered a debate within the 29-country alliance, as well as with other nations contributing troops to the international force deployed to Afghanistan. While some countries believe they need to reduce their forces, others, including Germany and Italy, believe their forces could remain under certain conditions.

The alliance has frequently said that its efforts were inexorably linked to the United States, often under the mantra “in together, out together.”

But as American negotiators look to finalize a new peace deal with the Taliban, some in the alliance view NATO’s future in Afghanistan as tenuous as the war enters, once more, a new phase. More than a thousand troops from NATO and other allied nations have died in the 18-year-old war. Allies such as Britain and Canada fought bloody campaigns in the country’s south during the height of the conflict.

The peace talks between the United States and the Taliban restarted in December. But they remain mired as negotiators wrestle over how to reduce violence first. The Afghan government wants a cease-fire, and the Taliban has scaled back some attacks — but only on cities and main roads.

Even without a deal, the United States has said that it will likely withdraw some troops in the coming months. On Tuesday, during his State of the Union address, President Trump signaled that troop cuts in Afghanistan were likely.

“We are working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home,” he said.

Some allied officials argue that NATO can stave off large-scale cuts in its force, currently around 8,700 troops, as long as the United States does not cut its support forces, including maintenance troops, transport planes and medical evacuation teams. American officials say their plan, for now, is to leave those support forces in place.

But as the Trump administration pushes to remake the American mission to focus more on combat and less on training Afghan security forces, the Pentagon could be pressured to cut back on those support forces. If that happens, allied officials have said, they will have to rethink their commitment to maintaining their forces and NATO’s current network of bases.

Under the current American drawdown plan, the United States will maintain at least half a dozen bases, including the two led by the Germans and Italians in the country’s north and west, according to Defense Department officials.

The Americans have asked NATO to maintain its current force levels — regardless of the drawdown — to carry the bulk of the training mission going forward.

“I think it’s pretty presumptuous of the United States to draw down and expect the European countries to keep their current levels,” said Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “NATO wouldn’t be in Afghanistan if it wasn’t for the United States.”

Some European officials say they believe the continued international presence in Afghanistan has helped curb the flow of migrants and refugees out of the country. But as the war stretches on, many politicians want to see the alliance reduce its commitment in the country.

“Clearly many European capitals wouldn’t mind reducing their presence or turning the page on NATO’s Afghanistan chapter,” said Bruno Lété, an expert on the alliance in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

If allies decide to cut more deeply, the continued training of the Afghan military will hang in the balance. The alliance, which immediately backed the United States’ invasion in 2001, has been a stalwart, but sometimes unreliable, part of the war effort. The United States has often pushed NATO to contribute more forces, and the allied countries have struggled at times to find enough people to serve in the training billets they have agreed to fill.

In recent years, the United States has tried to shift more of the responsibility for training the Afghan army to NATO, as American troops have focused on training Afghanistan’s commando forces.

The training record is at best mixed, undoubtedly moving slower than anyone in the alliance wanted. High casualties, quick turnover and corruption have undermined the broader training effort. The Afghan military’s attrition rate is still “outpacing recruitment and retention,” according to a recent Pentagon report. More than 50,000 Afghan security forces have died since 2014, with several dying daily in far-flung checkpoints on the edge of Taliban-controlled territory.

Although the Afghan air force is making progress and the country’s commandos have been turned into a somewhat effective and reliable force, problems remain even there. A recent inspector general report said Afghan special operations units were working alongside American troops more often, not less, as was initially intended.

NATO countries and other allies that are a part of the NATO mission, known as Resolute Support, have mostly reduced their forces, with some exceptions, alongside Washington’s troop-level adjustments since 2014, when the Pentagon said it was shifting its emphasis to training and made the dubious claim that it had ended “combat operations.”

The most notable exception to the coordinated drawdowns and buildups has been France. In 2012, an Afghan soldier killed four French troops, prompting then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who was in the middle of a tough re-election campaign, to announce the end of the French combat mission. The remainder of the French forces left by the end of 2014.

Resolute Support has focused almost entirely on training the Afghan military, leaving airstrikes and offensive operations to the American counterterror mission known as Freedom’s Sentinel.

NATO defense ministers are set to discuss Afghanistan and the Resolute Support mission at a gathering in Brussels next week. Ahead of those meetings, allied officials were briefed last month by the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller and the chief negotiator for the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador.

Barring a surprise announcement from the Trump administration, the discussions next week are unlikely to yield any dramatic decisions on the alliance’s force posture, allied officials said.

Instead, the defense ministers are expected to have a more intense conversation of how NATO can expand its work in Iraq, potentially scaling up the more modest training effort the alliance is running there.

While allied officials say the two missions are not directly related, all allies have a finite number of troops available for overseas deployment. And one way to free more troops for future missions in Iraq would be to draw down the size of their forces in Afghanistan.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.

Source : Nytimes