NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on November 17 that the military bloc could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan too early, after reports said President Donald Trump would soon withdraw a large number of U.S. troops from the war-wracked country.
“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.
He said Afghanistan “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And [Islamic State] could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”
Stoltenberg's reaction came after media reports said the Pentagon had received directives to prepare to bring back another 2,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan and 500 from Iraq before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
That would leave only about 2,500 troops in each country, fewer than U.S. military officials have said is enough to ensure stability.
The Pentagon has not confirmed the reports about the withdrawal. However, U.S. officials said military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawal and that an executive order is in the works but has not yet been delivered to commanders.
Under an agreement signed in February between the Taliban and the United States, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for the Taliban committing to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other international militant groups.
On November 16, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also warned against accelerating troop reductions in Afghanistan.
McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said such troop reductions would give extremists a propaganda victory and would amount to abandoning partners.
He added that the move would leave room for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan and for Islamic State and Al-Qaeda to rebuild. He said it also could be viewed as a humiliation.
"It would hand a weakened and scattered Al-Qaeda a big, big propaganda victory and a renewed safe haven for plotting attacks against America," McConnell said.
"The spectacle of U.S. troops abandoning facilities and equipment, leaving the field in Afghanistan to the Taliban and [Islamic State] would be broadcast around the world as a symbol of U.S. defeat and humiliation, and a victory for Islamic extremism," he said, speaking on the Senate floor.
The Taliban said in a statement on November 10 that it remains committed to the deal’s implementation, despite a lack of progress in ongoing intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Qatar.
NATO took over the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003. 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.
NATO relies heavily on the U.S. armed forces to operate in Afghanistan.