NATO allies seek clarity on maintaining secure facilities in Afghanistan following troop withdrawal
The administration has issued broad commitments to maintaining its diplomatic presence and massive aid programs there, and to keeping terrorists from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for global attacks.
But NATO and other partners are increasingly concerned about the details, from how Kabul’s international airport and the main medical facility that diplomats and aid workers depend on will be kept operational and secure to where counterterrorism surveillance and other assets will be based outside Afghanistan.
Allies are hopeful that Biden will provide some answers — or at least more reassurance that they soon will be forthcoming — at the NATO summit he will attend in Brussels on Monday. U.S. and NATO officials have said Afghanistan is high on the agenda for the meeting.
U.S. lawmakers, assuming a likely Taliban takeover, have expressed concerns about counterterrorism, the future of Afghan women and minorities, and the safety of Afghans who worked as aides and interpreters for U.S. troops and other personnel. About 18,000 of them — along with their families — have applied for special U.S. immigrant visas.
Some lawmakers have raised the specter of Vietnam, where U.S. diplomats and their Vietnamese employees crowded onto rooftops for helicopter rescue as North Vietnamese troops entered the capital. “I remember . . . the first year I was here they had the fall of Saigon, and we saw the chaotic extradition from there,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate’s most senior member, said of the 1975 exodus.
“I want to know what it means to our embassies. . . . I assume you have contingency plans . . . is that correct?” Leahy asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken, who appeared in the Senate and the House last week, provided assurances but few details. “We are not withdrawing,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We are staying. The embassy is staying. Our programs are staying. We are working to make sure other partners stay; we are building all of that up.”
“Whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen . . . I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday,” he told lawmakers.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at a briefing last week that the departure of about 3,000 U.S. troops and removal of their equipment — including Afghan-based U.S. aircraft that could prevent, or at least delay, a Taliban takeover of Kabul — is “about halfway finished.” Some assessments have indicated completion as soon as the end of next month.
McKenzie stressed the importance of progress in political negotiations between the militants and the Afghan government that have achieved little since they began 10 months ago.
“It is critical that the parties come together,” he said. “As we pull out, there needs to be something political that’s left in place. I think the government of Afghanistan is willing to do that. I’m not sure the Taliban is willing to do that.”
“Now is the time, and unfortunately, time is now becoming very short,” McKenzie said.
A member of the Afghan government negotiating team said in Kabul that “on-and-off meetings” are still taking place in Doha, the Qatari capital, but so far nothing “substantial” has been discussed, and a “serious and meaningful process” has not even begun.
Blinken has said repeatedly that Afghanistan’s need for international recognition and assistance, which will not be forthcoming if the Taliban takes over by force, is the best incentive for the militants to make a deal.
Others are less sure that the Taliban is the only impediment to a political settlement.
President Ashraf Ghani has long rejected a power-sharing agreement, proposed by Blinken this spring, and remains steadfast in insisting elections must decide any future Afghan government. Taliban leaders have expressed strong opposition to participating in any government headed by Ghani and elections they consider a Western construct.
Intense international diplomatic pressure on Kabul to reach some kind of accommodation with the Taliban is splintering Ghani’s government. Rather than unify and throw their support behind the country’s elected leadership, many of Afghanistan’s key military and political power brokers are acting independently, seeking protection for themselves and their constituents.
Senior U.S. officials now believe an agreement is extremely unlikely. While the Taliban has been making rapid gains against Afghanistan’s security forces in more rural areas, some believe the militants are waiting for the U.S. withdrawal to be completed before they launch a full offensive in major cities.
Afghan troops have performed better than expected in some situations, but the momentum is definitely with the Taliban. And as Afghan politics become more fragmented, many officials believe the NATO-trained Afghan forces will follow suit.
In addition to the United States, thousands of NATO and other partner forces from 36 countries participating in Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan are also packing up for departure. While the United States has had the largest contingent, others with significant numbers in Afghanistan include Germany, Italy, Britain, Romania and Georgia.
In a meeting last week with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “reaffirmed our commitment to doing what we can to help our Resolute Support partners,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday.
NATO plans to continue its mission of training Afghan security forces outside of Afghanistan, but Stoltenberg declined in an interview to specify where that would take place. “It’s an ongoing process,” he said of questions that still need to be answered.
“There will always be issues that have to be sorted out,” he said, adding that the important thing was for alliance members to “sit down and address” them together.
U.S. officials have emphasized Biden’s determination to consult with the allies, a contrast the president has drawn between his administration and that of Donald Trump. But some NATO members, who found consultation lacking before Biden’s withdrawal announcement, remain concerned at the number of things still to be “sorted out.”
“Nothing is settled,” said a senior European official, one of several representatives of NATO nations who described the sensitive discussions on the condition of anonymity. “Counterterrorism is still being discussed.”
“It’s likely that the president will confirm at the NATO summit that the Americans will keep their embassy [in Kabul] with all the trimmings that requires,” the official said. “But we need to know who’s going to run the hospital and how comprehensive it will be. Who’s going to look after the airport? What sort of arrangements in the international zone . . . are available to other embassies besides the Americans? We need to know how to get in and out of Kabul [and] what the plan is in broad terms for the peace process.”
“The commander on the ground is American,” and the Americans have the most troops, the official said. “It’s not unreasonable to think the starting point is what the U.S. believes is feasible.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan declined last week to discuss ongoing talks with Pakistan and other neighboring countries — including a steady stream of conversations with Central Asian nations to the north of Afghanistan — about providing a platform for ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations.
“What I will say is that we are talking to a wide range of countries about how we build effective over-the-horizon capacity, both from an intelligence and from a defensive perspective to be able to suppress the terrorism threat in Afghanistan,” he said.
Asked about the airport and medical facility in Kabul, McKenzie said “our plans are very far advanced on what our posture is going to look like after we complete the withdrawal” of U.S. forces “and of course our NATO and other partners there.”
But while “I recognize it’s a subject of abiding interest to many people,” he said, making such information public could give tactical advantage “to those who would attack us.”
Health-care standards in Kabul are so poor that most embassies would be forced to shut down if the medical facility adjacent to the international airport, equipped to provide care to diplomats and NATO personnel, although without an intensive care capability, was not able to remain operational and in a secure environment.
The airport itself has been protected and run by Turkish troops during Resolute Support, and discussions about continuing that task after withdrawal are ongoing, diplomats from both countries said.
“Security at the airport will be important not only for the United States, but also for other nations to maintain their diplomatic presence in Kabul,” Kirby said. Without it, access — and escape routes — as well as the flow of promised aid would be difficult if not impossible.
The subject will loom large at a bilateral meeting Monday between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Brussels summit. Relations between Turkey and both the United States and NATO have been strained over a number of issues, including U.S. sanctions imposed following Turkey’s purchase of a sophisticated Russian missile defense system, regional policy differences and human rights.
Turkey, which has about 500 troops in Afghanistan and says it would need more for the airport mission, has made clear it intends to exact a price for its ongoing services. “We intend to stay in Afghanistan depending on conditions,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said last week. “What are our conditions? Political, financial and logistical support.”
But a Taliban statement issued Saturday may force all of the allies to think again. While Afghanistan needs and welcomes “selfless and humanitarian” international assistance, it said, the militants would view any outside forces remaining in Afghanistan as “occupiers” and treat them accordingly.
“The presence of foreign forces under whatever name and by whichever country in our homeland is unacceptable,” the statement said. “Every inch of Afghan soil, its airports and security of foreign embassies and diplomatic offices is the responsibility of the Afghans,” and no one “should hold out hope of keeping military or security presence in our country.”