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Biden heads to NATO amid friction over Afghanistan withdrawal

NATO allies have made no secret of their frustration with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan unconditionally by Sept. 11. Now as he arrives in Brussels this week for his first NATO summit as president, Biden must confront allies’ lingering resentment over the drawdown and tackle the thorny issues involved in securing the country’s future.

European officials say they are frustrated by what they saw as the Biden administration’s failure to sufficiently consult with allies ahead of the announcement, and the decision to move from a conditions-based withdrawal to one based on the calendar. U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace echoed those sentiments last month, telling parliament that he “regrets” the decision to withdraw forces without setting conditions on the Taliban.

That disappointment will likely color the discussions this week in Brussels, where officials must begin to tackle a series of unanswered questions about the future of Afghanistan — from securing critical infrastructure such as embassies and aircraft to ensuring that the country does not once again become a haven for terrorists.

“It’s not a surprise that you’ve seen some countries express, pretty straightforwardly, their dissatisfaction with the way things were done,” said one European official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “This is another example of one of the issues where within NATO, we should be more substantially discussing and consulting with one another before making decisions.”

Left with little choice but to go along with the withdrawal, NATO allies have since gotten on board, European officials say. The last Western troops will likely leave Afghanistan weeks before the Sept. 11 deadline, possibly as soon as July; as of Tuesday, the U.S. withdrawal was more than 50 percent complete, according to U.S. Central Command. As of 2021, NATO countries had nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, from countries including Germany, the U.K., Turkey, Georgia, Romania and Italy.

A senior Biden administration official pushed back on the characterization that NATO was out of the loop, noting that in early February, U.S. officials set up a “listening session” with allies “to hear their perspectives and priorities,” which was “widely appreciated by allies.”

“This set the stage for an improved tempo of consultation with NATO, during which several scenarios and possible outcomes were discussed,” the official said. The official declined to say whether the proposal to move to a time-based withdrawal was discussed.

Biden must now smooth the waters as the NATO coalition looks toward a not-so-distant future where the Afghan National Defense Forces will be left essentially to their own devices for the first time in 20 years.

Publicly, U.S. and NATO officials express cautious optimism about the future of Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he has faith the Afghan security forces will be able to withstand Taliban attacks and that the government in Kabul would manage to cement the social and economic gains made over the past 20 years.

“The intention was never to stay there forever,” Stoltenberg said during a Monday event at the Atlantic Council, ahead of his first meeting with Biden as president. “The decision to leave entails risks, but at the same time we will leave an Afghanistan which is very different than the Afghanistan we went into in 2001.”

“At some stage, the Afghans had to take full responsibility for their own future, and that’s what they’re doing, with continued support from the NATO Allies,” he added.

But experts warn that after the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan, the country’s security situation will deteriorate and Western forces may need to clean up the mess. Retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Central Command, compared the situation in Afghanistan today to the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, which arguably led to the rise of the Islamic State.

“It’s hard for me not to look at this through the lens of our 2011 decision in Iraq, where we stepped away and then we ended up having to go back in,” Votel said, noting that “the situation in Baghdad in 2011 was much better than it is in Kabul in 2021.”

Key to containing the Taliban and terrorist organizations after Western forces leave will be maintaining the Afghan National Security Forces, which have suffered massive casualties in the past few years. One of the most pressing questions is whether the U.S. and NATO allies will continue to train the Afghan forces in some capacity, whether remotely or from outside the country, after the withdrawal.

The Pentagon has said its own training mission will end after the drawdown, but Stoltenberg said Monday that NATO will look to continue training the Afghans from a different location.

“Our military mission, the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, will end. But of course, we can train Afghan forces in other countries, and we’re looking into how we can provide that kind of support,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain that’s the best way also to fight terrorism.”

The coalition will continue to provide financial assistance to the Afghan government, but the amount and level of contribution from each country has yet to be determined, officials said.

Another significant challenge is how to conduct surveillance and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan from afar. One of the main concerns of Western officials is that al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other potential terrorists will re-emerge once U.S. and NATO forces leave the country.

“I don’t think anyone is complacent about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan or indeed from any country, and so we need to make sure we have the capability and ability to address that threat,” said Ed Ferguson, the minister counselor for defense at the U.K. Embassy in Washington.

U.S. officials have maintained that these operations will continue after the withdrawal, drawing on the U.S. presence in the Gulf and potentially basing troops from neighboring countries. But some European allies are skeptical that the coalition will be able to achieve more strategic goals with this limited over-the-horizon capability.

“We might have to adjust, because we’re probably not going to use the same tools to gather information that we have when we had a presence on the ground,” the European official said, noting the logistical challenges of U.S. forces covering territory from far-off bases in the Gulf.

NATO is also closely watching how the United States tackles the problem of ensuring the safety of thousands of Afghan interpreters and other civilians who helped the U.S. government over the past 20 years, and are now in danger from the Taliban.

In an ominous statement last week, the Taliban urged the Afghans who worked alongside Western forces to “show remorse for their past actions,” and warned them not to “engage in such activities in the future that amount to a threat against Islam and the country.” The group said these people will not be in any danger if they drop these activities.

U.S. lawmakers have recently expressed frustration that the White House is not moving more quickly to expedite special immigrant visas for as many as 18,000 Afghans to enter the United States before the withdrawal is complete.

European countries, by contrast, have taken more robust steps to accelerate their own relocation processes. The U.K., for example, recently announced that it will expedite the relocation of Afghan staff and families who worked for the British government in Afghanistan. More than 1,360 people have already been relocated in Britain, and the government now estimates that about 3,000 more people will join them.

France, meanwhile, is also giving the Afghans who worked with the French army over the years the option to emigrate to France with their families.

“France feels that it has a responsibility toward all the Afghans that we worked with and that helped us,” said Louis Dugi-Gros, counselor for Asia at the French Embassy in Washington.

Some experts and lawmakers are urging the Pentagon to formulate a plan to evacuate the refugees to a third location such as Guam while their paperwork is being processed. But the department has said that so far, the White House has not asked for such an option.

“I have no doubt that the U.S. military would do it very professionally, but there’s an awful lot that has to be coordinated there to take them to our country or a third location,” Votel said. “The longer we go with this, the more it looks like a crisis that we are taking these steps, it looks more desperate as we move on with time.”

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