- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2020

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization sees a “difficult dilemma” when it comes to Afghanistan, the alliance’s secretary-general said Monday, as the U.S. moves to draw down its number of forces stationed in the country.

NATO has roughly 11,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, representing dozens of member countries, that participate in training and advisory roles for Afghan forces.

“We face a difficult dilemma — whether to leave and risk that Afghanistan becomes once again a safe haven for international terrorists, or stay, and risk a longer mission, with renewed violence,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.

Earlier this month, President Trump announced that the U.S. will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by Jan. 15 — five days before presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is expected to take the oath of office.

America currently has 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq, and both deployments date back to the early 2000s.

Although Mr. Stoltenberg quelled some concern over the future of the alliance’s long-standing role in Afghanistan, questions remain around how to proceed with the lack of logistical support the U.S. traditionally provides.

“Whatever path we choose, it is important that we do so together, in a coordinated and deliberate way,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Fears also remain of the safety of Western troops in the country as violence continues despite a deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban struck in February.

The agreement envisioned a complete pullout of U.S. troops by mid-2021, but only if insurgents agreed to power-sharing talks with the Afghan government and worked to keep other terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State from establishing a base inside Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has been openly skeptical of the deal, and Mr. Trump dismissed former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper earlier this month in large part over his opposition to an expedited U.S. withdrawal.

“We have seen over the last months and weeks several attacks,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “Some are conducted by Taliban; some attacks ISIS claimed responsibility for. But what we know is that the Taliban is responsible for attacks and the level of violence is far too high.”

Despite the uptick in violence, Mr. Stoltenberg expressed renewed optimism for lasting peace.

“We now see an historic opportunity for peace. It is fragile, but it must be seized,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “We see an unpredictable and difficult military and political situation. But at least there are now talks.”

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