A full-scale, unconditional NATO and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, including Estonian personnel, looks further set to go ahead this year and earlier than its original estimated date, following announcements from United States President Joe Biden to that effect, along with meetings with NATO member states' leaders. NATO's presence in Afghanistan predates Estonia's joining NATO.
Allied troops in the country currently number over 10,000, more than a third of these from the U.S.
The announcement has come after continued threats from the Taliban, the Sunni fundamentalist group long in conflict with the official Afghan government, that attacks on NATO forces in that country will resume if troops are not withdrawn. Former president Donald Trump had pledged to pull out U.S. personnel from Afghanistan by early May, a date which is now back on the agenda, though dissenting voices on the speed of withdrawal have been heard from the Republican Party in the U.S.
The revised withdrawal date seems to take into account the needs of all NATO allies, including Estonia, with the principle that just as entering Afghanistan in late 2001, nearly three years before Estonia joined NATO, was carried out on the basis of Article 5 of the alliance's treaty – dealing with collective security – so too should withdrawal be conducted in the same way.
Biden: Time to leave Afghanistan
The withdrawal and its schedule will not be affected by any changes to the security situation in Afghanistan between now and then, Biden has said.
A meeting Wednesday of NATO defense and foreign ministers confirmed that all NATO troops would be out of Afghanistan – a country whose troubles an older generation of Estonians would also be familiar with given the 10-year Soviet war which started in 1979 – this year.
The original date had been set for September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York which sparked the invasions both of Afghanistan and, in 2003, Iraq. However, a date of May 1 – i.e. two-and-a-half-weeks from now – is now the deadline for withdrawal.
"The withdrawal will take place on a regular and coordinated basis. We are planning to complete the withdrawal of all support forces within a few months," the statement read, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Wednesday night.
Kalle Laanet: Afghanistan goals have been met, just need to liaise with UK and Germany
The NATO ministers say that goals in Afghanistan have also been met, meaning the job is done.
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) said on Tuesday that Estonia, together with Great Britain and Germany, will decide when to start bringing its troops home from Afghanistan. When and how the return of troops will take place, Laanet will discuss with colleagues in the coming weeks.
As reported by ERR News, Joe Biden had called for the end to what he called an endless war earlier this week, though with a planned exit date of September. Kalle Laanet said then that a decision on Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) personnel in relation to the planned withdrawal would be made soon.
Laanet told AK Wednesday evening about his immediate, updated plans, which were in fact to contact U.K. Secretary of State for Defense, Ben Wallace, first off.
"First of all, I will be having a phone conversation with the U.K.'s defense minister tomorrow, which had been planned for earlier, and certainly one of the topics is Britain's plans [for Afghanistan]. The other aspect is that the [Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP)] rotation will change soon," he said.
Laanet had stressed the importance of liaising with both Britain, a key ally for Estonia as the lead nation at the Tapa-based NATO eFP Battlegroup, and Germany, whose air force currently holds the NATO air policing duties at Ämari air base.
Laanet: US has praised all NATO allies
Laanet said the U.S. had praised its allies for their cooperation in Afghanistan; more recent operations there have been training and equipping the country's security forces in the fight against the Taliban.
"It was very important that the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Lloyd Austin – ed.) addressed allied nations, passing on his thanks from President Biden, for their support in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Different countries have suffered differing consequences … The end was cordial and expressed gratitude," Laanet said.
Nine Estonian soldiers have lost their lives in operations in Afghanistan since Estonia joined NATO in 2004, eight in action and one the result of an accident. Ninety-two EDF soldiers have additionally been wounded in action there during that time.
The total number of coalition (including non-NATO) deaths since 2001 comes to 3,502.
The prospect of any new training mission in Afghanistan along other lines was not discussed Wednesday, Laanet said.
Meanwhile White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday that: "The president has been consistent in his view that there's not a military solution to Afghanistan, that we have been there for far too long. That has been his view for some time."
While the relevance of the pandemic was not directly referenced, Psaki's words hinted at it.
"[Biden] remains committed to supporting negotiations between the parties … resuming next week. He also believes we need to focus our resources on fighting the threats we face today, almost 20 years after the war began" Psaki went on.
Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, who was in Brussels, Belgium Wednesday, visiting NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE – located near Mons, in the south of Belgium – ed.) said that it was high time for the NATO allies to fulfill a long-held mantra of leaving Afghanistan, together.
"I am here to work closely with our allies and the Secretary General of NATO on the principle that we have established from the beginning: 'In together, adapt together and out together,'" Blinken, who has also been discussing the situation in and with Ukraine, said in a statement.
"We will work very closely together in the weeks and months ahead on a safe, deliberate and coordinated withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan," Blinken added.
Republican senate leader: Withdrawal this rapid is reckless
However, a dissenting voice back home came in the form of U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who said that: "A reckless pull-back like this would abandon our Afghan regional, and our NATO, partners, in a shared fight against terrorists that we have not yet won. It will also specifically abandon the women of Afghan, whose individual freedoms and human rights will be imperiled."
Estonia's defense ministry has been analyzing the situation in Afghanistan in recent months, ERR reports, and while various options had been competing with each other on the table, one thing that was clear was that the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have not so far yielded the desired results.
Germany's Defense Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also said Wednesday that she doubted any NATO member state was likely to oppose Biden's stance on Afghan withdrawal.
While there are officially around 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at any one time, this number fluctuates continually, AK reported, and at the moment stands at more like 3,500. In addition, around 7,000 NATO and allied personnel are in the country.
Last year saw a power-sharing deal in Afghan politics, between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah; the latter is due to oversee the peace process with the Taliban
The original AK report (in Estonian and English) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte