NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has applauded the U.S. decision to slow down its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, while rejecting the notion that ties between the alliance and Washington have become strained.
“I welcome the flexibility which is now shown by the United States and President [Barack] Obama,” Stoltenberg told VOA during an exclusive interview Thursday in Washington. “That just once again confirms and shows the strong commitment the United States and NATO have when it comes to supporting the Afghans.”
Obama announced the change in plans Tuesday, saying the 9,800 American troops stationed in Afghanistan would remain there until the end of the year. Earlier plans called for the number of troops to be cut almost in half.
Stoltenberg said the change would have an impact on NATO, which has maintained a presence in Afghanistan through Operation Resolute Support. That program aims to provide training and assistance for Afghan security forces.
“We went into Afghanistan together and we are going to leave Afghanistan together when it comes to the current military presence,” Stoltenberg said, promising NATO would continue to support Afghanistan and help fund the country’s security forces.
Despite coming to Washington to meet with officials and congressional leaders, Stoltenberg did not meet with Obama, raising concerns about the relationship between NATO and the Obama administration.
Stoltenberg downplayed any possible strains, citing “excellent, very good cooperation between NATO as an organization and the United States.”
“The United States has once again proved that they are a strong, committed ally,” he said.
Stoltenberg did meet Thursday with Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, who conveyed Obama's invitation to visit in May.
Like the U.S., NATO is concerned by reports that the group known as Islamic State is trying to establish a presence in Afghanistan as well as in several North African countries.
He said NATO was working with its partners and other countries to reduce the threat posed by foreign fighters as well as to help countries trying to fend off Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
“We are working with partners in the Middle East to try to help them to become stronger, to increase their defense capacity, because if they are more stable, then we are more secure,” Stoltenberg said.