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Former NATO Commander Expects Biden Administration to Keep Troops in Afghanistan

Afghan security checks a car destroyed in a rocket attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 21, 2020. Multiple rockets were fired around Kabul residential areas, killing several and wounding dozens of people.

In an interview Monday with VOA, James Stavridis, retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, said the U.S. and its allies should keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban into a peace agreement with the Afghan government. Stavridis told Breshna Omarkhel of VOA’s Afghan Service he was confident President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will maintain a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, testifies before a Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing, March 26, 2015.
Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, testifies before a Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing, March 26, 2015.

How long will Afghanistan depend on international help, and how long will the international community be willing to help Afghanistan?

My sense is the international community will in fact continue to support Afghanistan, really, for the indefinite future. I certainly believe the United States, in particular, with a Biden administration coming in, will be very likely to want to conclude a successful peace agreement. I think the entire international community wants that. So, the level of aid may be reduced a bit, but I think as a general proposition, the support will continue, frankly, because we are getting closer and closer to a peace agreement, inshallah (God willing).

Last weekend when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was talking to the Taliban in Doha, insurgents fired rockets on Kabul, killing eight civilians and injuring dozens more. What message did the insurgents give to the U.S. through such a brazen attack?

Well, first of all, we need to try and differentiate between different factions of insurgents in Afghanistan. The Islamic State is active. Al-Qaida is active. Neither of them had any interest in a peace agreement. Even within the Taliban, there is division. … So, we don’t know certainly who launched those particular attacks. But I will say this: All of them are unhelpful in concluding this agreement. … My advice, if I were advising the insurgents, is, ‘You would be smart to look beyond the Trump administration and focus on the incoming Biden administration.’ My belief is the Biden administration will maintain U.S. troop presence for the foreseeable future [and] will support the Afghan government. And I don’t see a sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan. If that is your hope, launching rockets is not going to get you there.

President Donald Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan before Biden takes charge in January. What kind of difficulties might the new administration face if things do not go well in Afghanistan?

I think the new administration will look very seriously at bringing back some additional number of troops, whether President Trump gets all 2,500 of them home by the inauguration or not. My own belief is that a Biden administration will take a zero-based review of the situation. That is their style, their policy points. Recall that this is a team, the Biden administration, all of whom are deeply experienced in Afghanistan. I worked with all of the senior members during those years when I was supreme allied commander. They have a good feel for Afghanistan. I think the minimum level of troops to sustain a peace agreement dialogue is probably around 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. troops and about the same number of allied troops. I think you'll see a Biden administration look hard at returning to that baseline that keeps the pressure on the Taliban at the negotiating table. That is the best path forward for a peace agreement.

Will reversing Trump's Afghan policy be an option for the Biden administration?

Every administration comes in, looks at the global scene and makes decisions. ‘Do we send a new carrier battle group to the Arabian Gulf? Do we pull one back from the Caribbean Sea? Are we going to close bases in Europe? Are we going to open new bases in Poland? Are we going to continue to have 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, or are we going to go with reductions put in place by the Trump administration?’ This administration will look at all its options globally, and I’m confident that the mission in Afghanistan will become more conditions-based than it appears to have been over the last year with the Trump administration. I think that’s good news for Afghanistan.

The Taliban have increased attacks across Afghanistan. Targeted killings are also at all-time high, resulting in the loss of trust of the government among citizens. Do you see any risks of the fall of the system in Afghanistan in the absence of U.S. troops?

There is always the possibility of a sudden reversal of events. My own view would be, so long as the U.S. and allies, the NATO mission, continue at some minimal level — even if we continue with the Trump troop cuts, but you still keep 3,000 U.S. (and) 3,000 NATO troops there — and … you continue to financially support the Afghan National Security Forces, then I think they will be able to hold off the Taliban indefinitely. … So, let’s continue to watch the money, as the saying goes, and let’s hope. My hope and my advice to a Biden administration would be, ‘We have come too far. We’ve invested too much. This is the wrong time to simply walk away from this Afghan mission that we have conducted with our allies, partners and friends, and, above all, with the people of Afghanistan.’ We can continue to support them with a minimal troop presence, and we can continue with relatively small amounts of funding. Those are both well within the capacity of the U.S. and its allies. And I would firmly advocate for them if we can. I don't think the future is bright for the Taliban.

Roshan Noorzai of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed to this report.