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NATO Waiting to See What US Will Do in Afghanistan

FILE - Commander of NATO Resolute Support forces and United States forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson walks during a change of command ceremony in Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2, 2016.

Despite the uncertainty about U.S. future force numbers in Afghanistan, most NATO military chiefs say they are not planning to withdraw their forces from the war-torn country, the chairman of NATO’s military committee said Wednesday.

Petr Pavel told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels that “there was a general acknowledgement by most of the NATO allies” that they would “keep the same level of participation in Afghanistan.” He said the decision was due to the belief that “conditions were not yet met” for NATO to pull out.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to decrease from 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of the year. Due to the U.S.’s significant troop presence in Afghanistan, NATO’s future plans for Afghanistan have stalled as the U.S. administration tries to determine whether or not it will stick to its planned troop withdrawal.

“We’re waiting for that final ‘this is what it’s going to be’ so we can then go forward with whatever cards are dealt,” a NATO official said Wednesday.

Pavel said NATO military chiefs called for “flexible” mission parameters based on conditions on the ground.

The new NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, added that Afghan forces must first become self-sustaining before Afghanistan is no longer be a haven for terrorists.

FILE - NATO soldiers walk at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 30, 2015.
FILE - NATO soldiers walk at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 30, 2015.

Flexibility urged

The rhetoric mirrored testimony earlier this year by U.S. General John Campbell, then-head of international forces in Afghanistan.

“The United States must continue to show flexibility with our mission in 2016 and beyond,” Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee in February.

Defense chiefs were briefed by U.S. General John “Mick” Nicholson, who commands international forces in Afghanistan, on Afghan force capability and security areas which NATO allies need to help sustain.

A NATO official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some European nations appear to have a vested interest in certain capabilities and want to see these programs endure in Afghanistan whether or not U.S. troop numbers decrease.

Examples of these programs include countering the Afghan drug trade, which the official said is seen as an “internal threat” to some Europeans, as well as aircraft pilot training and intel collection operations.

But the uncertainty has made it difficult for U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford to advise other NATO military leaders on a way forward in Afghanistan, according to the Brookings Institution’s defense expert Michael O’Hanlon.

“The expectation of drawing down by the end of this year is not seen as compatible with combat circumstances,” O’Hanlon told VOA. “So that puts Dunford in a tough spot. He's not just waiting for his combatant commander or his field commander’s report, he's waiting for his commander-in-chief.”