Italian, German officials question future in Afghanistan amid speculation of US drawdown
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 29, 2019
KABUL, Afghanistan — A major U.S. ally contributing large numbers of troops to the war in Afghanistan is questioning its presence in the country, a move that could stir debate among NATO members amid reports of a U.S. troop drawdown.
Italy is considering pulling troops out of Afghanistan within a year, according to a report by Reuters, which quoted an unnamed senior Italian Defense Ministry source.
The source told a group of reporters that Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta asked military leaders to start initial planning for a full withdrawal, and that “the timeframe could be 12 months,” although a final decision hasn’t been made, Reuters said.
With nearly 900 soldiers in Afghanistan, Italy is one of the largest contributors to the international coalition. It leads NATO’s operations in the west of the country.
In Germany, whose 1,300 troops form the largest national contingent after the U.S., an opposition lawmaker has called for a withdrawal plan for their forces. Germany leads coalition operations in northern Afghanistan.
The considerations are coming following U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s announcement of an agreement in principle between the U.S. and the Taliban on a peace deal that would include the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a pledge by the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups.
The Afghan government has not yet been included in the talks and many details must still be worked out, but further U.S.-Taliban talks are scheduled for Feb. 25.
“We are in a hurry for the sake of the Afghan people to end the violence as soon as we can,” Khalilzad told reporters in Kabul on Monday. “We cannot leave the situation in a state of uncertainty. We need to complete the process.”
The German government has not publicly called for a withdrawal plan in recent days, though Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in January that when the U.S. finishes its Afghanistan mission, German troops would also withdraw.
Germany’s parliament has until the end of March to decide whether to extend its mission in Afghanistan.
“If the Americans reduce the number of their soldiers, this will definitely be a different mission (for the German military),” parliamentarian Bijan Djir-Sarais, of the Free Democratic Party, told the German magazine Der Spiegel in a story published Monday. “The government and the army, therefore, need an exit strategy.”
The Free Democrats are not currently part of the government but have participated in prior coalitions headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel. The party has long voted to continue Afghanistan operations, but that could change if the U.S. draws down.
“If the German government does not find answers to the new situation, I cannot recommend to my party to approve the mandate,” said Djir-Sarais, who advises his party on foreign affairs.
Coalition concerns over the future presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan rose last month when it was reported that President Donald Trump was considering cutting the number of American troops in Afghanistan by about half. Those purported plans appear to be on hold while discussions with the Taliban proceed.
The Defense Department has not been ordered to prepare for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Monday at the Pentagon, where he met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Shanahan declined to provide any other details about a potential drawdown.
Stoltenberg expressed support on Monday for the ongoing peace discussions, which are aimed at getting the Taliban to negotiate directly with the Afghan government. But he said any discussion of coalition troops pulling out of Afghanistan would be premature.
The first NATO forces arrived in Afghanistan in 2001. At the height of the war in 2010, almost 140,000 troops — about two-thirds of them Americans — were deployed to the country.
Marcus Kloeckner contributed to this report.