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NATO Enthusiastic, Others Mixed on Afghanistan

FILE - President Barack Obama, accompanied by Tech Sgt. Nathan Parry, takes a question from a service member in Afghanistan, on screen at center, during a town hall with service members at Fort Meade, Md., Sept. 11, 2015.
FILE - President Barack Obama, accompanied by Tech Sgt. Nathan Parry, takes a question from a service member in Afghanistan, on screen at center, during a town hall with service members at Fort Meade, Md., Sept. 11, 2015.

President Barack Obama’s announcement of a delayed U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan drew an understandably enthusiastic response from NATO’s leadership and mixed reviews among U.S. lawmakers and other observers.

“This important decision paves the way for a sustained presence by NATO allies and partners in Afghanistan,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement, reacting to Thursday’s news that the United States would maintain its current troop strength of roughly 9,800 in the country through most of 2016 and keep a significant presence into the next year.

NATO’s Resolute Force supports Afghan’s government and security forces in their fight against militant extremists. But the Afghans have been challenged by an emboldened Taliban – which recently occupied the northern city of Kunduz – and the Islamic State group, now with a foothold in the country.

“The Afghan security forces continue to carry out their security responsibilities across the country, in a very challenging security environment,” NATO’s Stoltenberg said. “So it's crucial that we continue to support them, practically and financially, to preserve the gains we have achieved in Afghanistan through our joint efforts over many years."

U.S. troops represent roughly 6,800 out of more than 13,000 overall in the NATO-led Resolute Support mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces, an official with the mission said. Troops come from 40 countries.

Obama had planned to draw down troops except those based at the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the time he left office in January 2017. The revised blueprint will reduce U.S. levels to 5,500 sometime in 2017, with troops stationed in Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

'Not a path to success'

James Cunningham, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to late 2014, approved of Obama’s decision. He was among a group of national security experts who’d urged Obama to rethink his policy as outlined in a paper released this week by the Atlantic Council think tank.

Cunningham said he recognized Obama’s desire to pull most troops from Afghanistan before leaving office. But, he told Reuters in an interview, "The question has always been whether that's a realistic goal, and whether it will create a dangerous situation if we actually do that."

Obama’s policy shift did little to placate his steadfast critic, U.S. Senator John McCain.

Though the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Republican chairman said in a statement that he was pleased with postponing the troop drawdown, he added, “It would have been far better to halt all further troop withdrawals and allow President Obama's successor to determine what is warranted based on conditions on the ground."

Like McCain, analyst Michael G. Michael Waltz said that with Afghanistan’s national army “taking unsustainable casualties,” Obama’s policy switch was “necessary but not sufficient.… It’s certainly not a path to success and sustainability.”

Numbers matter

Waltz, who worked on Afghanistan policy in the George W. Bush administration, is an author and senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation in Washington. He said the U.S. troop levels – eventually dropping from 10,000 to 5,500 – were insufficient to decisively change the course of the conflict.

“Numbers matter in terms of capability,” Waltz said, “but that’s down in the weeds for the broader message: Our enemies and allies need to get the message that we’re not leaving.”

Jason Campbell, an expert on Afghan national security and an associate analyst with the RAND Corp. think tank, called it “a wise decision to keep the force levels largely where they’re at now.

“I’m also happy to see that the decision for 2017 has effectively been announced,” he told VOA. He said he’s “not a big fan of placing firm numbers” either on troop strength or a drawdown deadline, setting parameters gives more solid guidance for logistics.

“At least now those planners within the [NATO] coalition can start planning,” Campbell said. “A lot of energy was wasted in 2014 among military planners … because they didn’t have a clear idea of where the White House was going.”