Monday, May 17, 2021

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NATO unanimously backs U.S. exit from Afghanistan


BRUSSELS - The 30-member NATO alliance on Wednesday unanimously backed the United States' decision to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 after President Joe Biden's top diplomat and defense official made the cause for the move in a joint visit to Brussels.

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In a closed-door meeting of alliance foreign ministers, followed by a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to put a positive spin on the conclusion of the long-grinding conflict, which has lost the confidence of the general public in much of Western Europe and North America. He said the alliance had ensured that Afghanistan would never again become a platform or haven for global terrorists.

"The threat from al-Qaida in Afghanistan is significantly degraded; Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice," Blinken said. "We have achieved our objective." Remaining in Afghanistan, he said, is not "in our interest. Not for the United States, not for NATO and our allies."

The military alliance went into Afghanistan after invoking its collective defense clause, Article 5, for the first time in its history following the 9/11 attacks. About 7,000 non-U.S. foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, mostly from NATO countries such as Germany, Italy and Britain, but also non-NATO countries including Georgia and New Zealand.

Those troops outnumber the 2,500 troops the United States maintains in Afghanistan, but they rely heavily on U.S. air and logistical support. That reliance caused many NATO allies to express concern in recent years when President Donald Trump would tweet sporadically about a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan without coordinating with allies.

Blinken on Wednesday assured foreign partners that there would be no such surprises in the Biden era.

"I am here to work closely with our allies, with the [NATO] secretary general, on the principle that we have established from the start: 'In together, adapt together and out together,' " Blinken said before an earlier meeting with Stoltenberg.

Blinken was joined in Brussels by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is also meeting with NATO counterparts on the plan to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal and complete it by Sept. 11.

In a closed-door meeting among all 30 NATO members, Austin set the tone for the discussion with a strong endorsement of the withdrawal, said a European official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss alliance deliberations. Austin referenced his military service and intimate knowledge of the sacrifices made in the conflict, but underscored that the time to leave the country was upon us, the official said.

Following Austin's remarks, the official said, those in the room who spoke for their countries broadly supported the withdrawal plan, with the exception of some grumbling from the representatives of the Czech Republic and Belgium, who spoke about the speed of Biden's decision and the investments European countries had made in the conflict.

British and German officials have indicated that they will accompany the United States with their own departure from Afghanistan. For some countries, however, the exit is more difficult to swallow.

"We have had dozens of soldiers die there," said one Western European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his reaction to the U.S. plan. The diplomat noted, however, that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan has been significantly reduced, which was always the main objective.

"Our first and foremost goal is just not to have in Afghanistan a future place for international terrorism," the diplomat said.

At the news conference, Stoltenberg said the alliance decision was "unanimous," adding that "this is not an easy decision and it entails risks. . . . We've said for many months we face a dilemma, because the alternative to leaving in an orderly fashion is to be prepared for a long-term, open-ended military commitment with potentially more NATO troops."

Like Blinken, he said that the alliance and other partners would continue to support Afghanistan. "This is not the end of our relationship with Afghanistan, but rather the start of a new chapter," Stoltenberg said.

But in making that pledge, he also referred to the problems Afghanistan will face, and the belief of many officials and experts that the Taliban is likely to increase its campaign to take over the country.

"It is now for the Afghan people to build a sustainable peace" that "puts an end to violence, safeguards the rights of all Afghans - particularly women and children - and assures that Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorists," Stoltenberg said.

He made clear that the U.S. withdrawal was a primary factor in the NATO decision. "In light of the U.S. decision to withdraw, we discussed the way forward today," he said, adding that any Taliban attack on departing troops "will be met with a forceful response."

For years, many NATO members, especially Germany, indicated that any withdrawal must be based on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. But the Biden administration made clear on Tuesday that this would not be the standard.

Austin did not respond to a question at the news conference about his own recent statements that withdrawal would be "conditions-based."

"I fully support his decision," Austin said of Biden. "Our troops have accomplished the mission they were sent to achieve." Asked if U.S. military leaders agreed on the departure, Austin said he would not speak for them. "What I can tell you is this was an inclusive process," he said of internal administration decision-making, "and their voices were heard, their concerns taken into consideration as the president made his decision."

Strong reservations about the fate of Afghanistan remain, but European diplomats acknowledged that staying in the country indefinitely was unsustainable, logistically and politically.

"As long as the U.S. consults, gives at least a veneer of co-decision, and withdraws responsibly enough that it doesn't leave the Europeans high and dry, then the Europeans won't be hard to deal with on this issue," said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "In the end, the Europeans went into Afghanistan for America and NATO; they'll accept to leave for the same reasons."

Published : April 15, 2021

By : John Hudson The Washington Post