Why are the US and NATO planning to remain in Afghanistan?

NATO said Wednesday it will keep its bases in Afghanistan open and possibly extend its mission there, while US officials may postpone the withdrawal of thousands of troops planned for later this year.

Virginia Mayo/AP
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.

One day after announcing a defensive buildup in Poland and the Baltics, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) agreed to maintain its presence in Afghanistan as the United States reexamines whether it will follow through on the planned withdrawal of thousands of troops there later this year.

The US, which has seen more than 2,200 military fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001, had previously announced plans to scale back its force there of 9,800 troops by nearly half this year – although talk of keeping forces longer in Afghanistan has persisted for months. Now, the US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter could be considering an official reversal on the troop reduction pledge, according to a British official.

“Everyone has an interest that our effort there is sustained,” British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said, according to Reuters, while at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “That's why as Ash Carter told us, the troop numbers are being looked at again.

“This is the wrong time to walk away from Afghanistan,” Mr. Fallon added.

Mr. Carter said that President Obama could review the nation’s military presence in Afghanistan, but he did not confirm Fallon’s characterization of his stance.

“The president has indicated consistently ... he is willing to look at the US force presence on the basis of circumstances in Afghanistan, and he is expected to do that at the end of the year,” Carter said. “He has expressed a willingness to do that, but that was not a topic of discussion at today's meeting, per se.”

Also at the NATO meeting, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO would not go through with a troop reduction and closure of bases in Afghanistan as previously planned, and that the US would continue contributing troops to NATO’s Operation Resolute Support.

“With a regional presence, we will continue to advise, train, and assist the Afghan national forces because we are very committed to continuing to support Afghans,” Mr. Stoltenberg said, according to Reuters.

“I believe we'll have sufficient resources, and our military commanders have told us we'll have sufficient resources, to stay in the basic posture,” an anonymous NATO diplomat told Reuters, adding that the US plans to cut in half its 6,800 troop commitment to Resolute Support. The source also said NATO could agree to $5 billion in funding for operations there through 2020, extending the plan that as of now lasts only through next year.

NATO plans to maintain its “hub and spoke” command structure, centering the bulk of its presence in Kabul and Bagram with international and Afghan military collaboration around the rest of the country to assist domestic security forces.

“Nobody wants to see all the spokes collapse,” Fallon said, according to the Associated Press. “I think we're all aware of the fragility of the Afghan forces. They're fighting hard, but taking very heavy casualties.”

The renewal of a military commitment in Afghanistan by the US and NATO comes in response to an increase in Taliban activity this year, as well as instability brought on by the region’s migrant crisis. NATO’s renewed commitment will allow its further training of Afghan forces, while a potential US extension of operations would further the partnership of American and Afghan military command and open the door for expanded US airstrikes against the resurgent Taliban. The US will also continue to pursue al-Qaeda forces and the small, but growing Islamic State presence there.

The NATO disclosure followed an announcement by Stoltenberg reporting the body’s rising annual defense budget, in contrast to prior years’ budgetary reductions.

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