Stoltenberg warns (again) against premature troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; war crimes report published in Australia

19 November 2020

On 17 October 2020 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that any premature troop withdrawal from Afghanistan could be dangerous, a day after it was reported that President Donald Trump was signalling an imminent drawdown against the advice of senior US military officials.

"The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high. Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq." Stoltenberg said in a statement to CNN. It has been NATO's longstanding position that it will end its mission in Afghanistan only when conditions on the ground permit and do so together. The NATO mission is in the process of reducing troop numbers from about 16,000 troops (about half of which were from the USA) to roughly 12,000 troops. The NATO mission also relies heavily on the US armed forces for transport and logistics.

President Trump is said to be preparing to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Under a draft order at the Pentagon, the president would almost halve — from 4,500 to 2,500 — the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, slightly tweak the total in Iraq and remove almost all US personnel from counterterrorism missions in Somalia by his departure from the presidency on 20 January. But it was also reported that then-Secretary of Defence Mark Esper sent a classified memo earlier this month to the White House asserting that it was the unanimous recommendation of the chain of command that the US not draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan any further until conditions were met. It is believed that the memo is one of the main reasons why Trump fired Esper last week.

In his statement, Stoltenberg also noted that the NATO presence in Afghanistan was in support of the United States following the 9/11 attacks on the US. "NATO went into Afghanistan after an attack on the United States to ensure that it would never again be a safe haven for international terrorists," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of troops from Europe and beyond have stood shoulder to shoulder with American troops in Afghanistan, and over one thousand of them have paid the ultimate price."

He also repeated his call for all NATO allies to honour their commitment and to withdraw when the time is right: "We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way. I count on all NATO allies to live up to this commitment, for our own security," he said.

The proposed cut in US forces in Afghanistan comes at a fraught time for Afghanistan: Peace negotiations in Qatar between the Afghan government and the Taliban are stalled, Taliban and Islamic State attacks are continuing, and morale is low among the beleaguered Afghan government forces, which have been taking heavy casualties. “If it were not for the air support of US forces, the Taliban would be sitting inside Kandahar city now,” Col. Zabiullah Ghorzang, an Afghan Army regimental commander in Kandahar Province, said on 17 November 2020.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid welcomed the US withdrawal as a “good step” towards ending the civil war in Afghanistan. President Trump had previously alluded to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by Christmas, but now the war in Afghanistan will certainly transition to a fourth US administration over almost 20 years of conflict.

Meanwhile, a heavily redacted copy of the final report of the inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan was published on 19 November 2020. Australia was one of the partner nations in the NATO led and UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force {ISAF), which operated in Afghanistan from August 2003 to December 2014.

The report found that Australian Special forces were responsible for 39 unlawful killings in 23 incidents during 2005-2014, the vast majority of which involved prisoners, and were deliberately covered up. All the victims were either non-combatants or were no longer combatants. A total of 25 perpetrators have been identified either as principals or accessories, with some still serving in the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, promised to act on the Brereton report’s “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling” findings about the conduct of Australian special forces. Campbell said he accepted all 143 recommendations, including referring individuals to the office of the special investigator to consider potential criminal cases, because it was his duty “to set things right”.

Changes to the ADF’s organisational structure are also promised and senior military and political leaders in Australia offered apologies to their counterparts and to the people of Afghanistan.