America’s NATO allies were “dismayed” by President Trump’s decision to draw down American troops in Afghanistan and undercut the mission goal of preventing a return of al Qaeda, said former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Jim Stavridis.
“They are dismayed,” Stavridis told the Washington Examiner after speaking to senior military and civilian NATO leaders following Trump’s call to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 by Jan. 15, 2021.
“And [to] do it with no strategic or tactical rationale and simply ignore the conditions,” he added. “That makes no military sense, no diplomatic sense, and no political sense.”
Trump abruptly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper two weeks ago and on Tuesday promptly directed new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to reverse course in Afghanistan.
In announcing the decision to slash troop levels from 4,500, Miller and senior defense officials claimed success and said that the mission would not be affected.
“Most important mission”
Stavridis said he does not believe the mission to train the Afghan armed forces, conduct counterterrorism operations, and pressure the Taliban to commit to peace can be achieved with the reduced troop level.
“I do not, and I base that on having commanded that mission when we had 150,000 troops there and having watched it decrement and get smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said. “I think we are at the absolute edge of accomplishing the mission with 5,000.”
Stavridis said he believes if the United States follows through with the troop cut, NATO allies will follow suit and pull their troops out as well. That would leave dedicated Taliban fighters to continue attacking Afghanistan Armed Forces and degrading the Afghanistan government’s attempt to stave off a return of an Islamic government that is permissive of al Qaeda.
The move also forfeits leverage that the U.S. might have against the Taliban to commit to the Feb. 29 peace agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, to reduce violence in the country and reach a political peace agreement with the Afghan government.
“That might be the most important mission that we will be incapable, in my view, of executing,” he said.
Meanwhile, the former supreme allied commander of NATO believes the Taliban is not winning the war in Afghanistan.
“They are far from winning,” he said, noting the Taliban does not control any major cities. The group is also deeply unpopular with the Afghan people, who “by and large despise the Taliban.”
Stavridis said the largest approval rating ascribed to the Taliban that he has seen was between 9% and 11%.
“They have no capability to attack and destroy the Afghan security forces as long as the United States and NATO continue to support those forces,” he said. “The train equip, organize, intelligence, logistics, fighter cover — all that matters. And we’re doing it now for very few troops.”
He added: “This is what in the business world we would call leverage. It’s when you make a small investment, but you achieve a big result, and we are leveraging the Afghan security forces and our allies.”
Stavridis said he often makes the case to friends and neighbors as to why Afghanistan matters to American national security, even with the post-9/11 objective to remove Osama bin Laden achieved.
“The bad news is al Qaeda continues to exist there. Now, we also have the Islamic State there,” he said.
The former Afghanistan commander said that although the Taliban “paid lip service to the idea of separating from those groups [they] have shown no real inclination to do so.
He added, “So, we still have risk.”
The Feb. 29 peace agreement with the Taliban calls for a conditions-based, full U.S. troop withdrawal by April 2021.
Despite a 50% rise in violence in Afghanistan over the past year and calls to abandon the peace deal with the Taliban, Stavridis leaves out hope that the Taliban could be part of a peaceful future Afghanistan.
“I believe there are factions within the Taliban who are willing to work to create a peaceful Afghanistan going forward,” he said. “Like all of these movements, there are elements that will seek to undermine this.”
Joe Biden can reverse decision
Stavridis told a story from his time as NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013 to illustrate that NATO members will warmly receive the Biden administration.
“President-elect Biden, I can tell you from deep personal experience with him, truly values the alliance,” he said.
Then-Vice President Biden was the guest of honor at a NATO dinner hosted at the Flemish country estate of the U.S. ambassador to NATO in Brussels. Foreign ministers or ambassadors from each of the 28 nations were present around a large table.
“Biden went one by one to each of those nations and was able to tell a story about his interaction with them, say something about the head of state and government, who he knew personally, could articulate a key defense issue,” he said. “The alliance will be very, very happy with President Biden.”
Stavridis believes that Biden would be well positioned to reverse Trump’s decision, if he so chooses.
He explained that in the final 60 days of the president’s tenure, the Pentagon can pull out the 2,000 troops that Trump has ordered back to the U.S. But removing their equipment would take much longer. That fact provides President-elect Biden the opportunity to restore the troops.
“It’s not like you bring troops home by just giving them an airline ticket and they fly home,” he said. “It’s quite a production to close these bases, to move the equipment, to get the people staged.”
He added, “It’s entirely possible that the Biden administration will reexamine this abrupt and, I think, very tactically and strategically foolish pullout.”
Stavridis said he expects the new administration would keep roughly the same number of troops that is currently present, approximately 4,500.
“If that keeps that nation stable and reduces the risk to the United States, I think that is good value for the money and for troops,” he said. “And I would call making that case an act of leadership, and that’s what I would hope we’ll see from a Biden administration.”
As to whether he would consider a position in the new administration: “That is a terrific question to direct to the Biden administration transition team.”
“I will say I am always open to a conversation about serving the nation in the future,” he added. “Beyond that, just dial 1-800-Joe-Biden and see who answers the phone.”