NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the virtual Defense One Outlook 2021 event, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the virtual Defense One Outlook 2021 event, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Defense One

NATO Gears Up for Biden, Big Decisions on Afghanistan, China

“We are faced with a very hard and difficult dilemma,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an exclusive interview.

President-elect Joe Biden’s impact on the NATO alliance could be immediate, with a series of significant decisions and meetings in early 2021 that could determine the fate of the war in Afghanistan and set new strategic priorities for the 71-year old alliance, including countering China, according to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. 

The secretary general on Thursday outlined a busy calendar that includes the January inauguration of a new and likely friendlier U.S. president, a critical February decision on whether to continue the Afghanistan mission, and a springtime summit of NATO’s heads of state and government. It all follows the American public’s firm rejection of President Donald Trump and NATO’s new set of 138 recommendations for how member states should rally with renewed political unity around a new slate of global threats. 

Biden is a familiar face in Brussels and to Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway. “I know him as a very strong supporter of the transatlantic bond, the cooperation between North America and Europe, and a very strong supporter of NATO,” said Stoltenberg, in an exclusive live online interview with Defense One. Biden was vice president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and so, “He knows NATO very well.” 

But Trump is not out of office yet. Near the top of NATO’s agenda is the unsettled state of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The White House last month ordered the Pentagon to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 before Biden takes over. That drawdown is underway and on track, said U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Frank McKenzie on Thursday, in a separate exclusive interview with Defense One.

NATO’s mission, however, relies on a critical level of supporting American troops in areas like logistics, supplies, and intelligence. Stoltenberg said that at the moment the remaining U.S. troops are able to fulfill that need for the non-U.S. NATO troops in Afghanistan, who outnumber the Americans. Whether the U.S. will continue on with its smaller force depends on the incoming Biden administration and a now-crucial meeting of NATO defense ministers scheduled for February — and on the Taliban. The U.S. and NATO are scheduled to pull all troops from Afghanistan by May, per the peace agreement with the Taliban. But so far, the Taliban have failed to live up to their end of the bargain, leaving NATO ministers with the job of recalculating the mission and the kind of forces needed. 

“The big issue we’ll have to address,” at the February meeting, “is: has the Talban met those conditions? Is the time right to start a full withdrawal?” Stoltenberg said. He can’t give his recommendation yet, he said, but repeated how he frequently characterizes the decision facing member states: “there is a price of staying and there is a price of leaving.” The same security concerns of Afghanistan functioning as a haven for terrorists exists, including now for ISIS. “It would be a great tragedy if the terrorist caliphate they lost in Iraq and Syria then reemerges in Afghanistan.”

“We have enough military presence to continue the mission. But again, we need to make a decision early next year...whether we continue to stay beyond the first of May — and then we have to be prepared for more fighting, for a more demanding and challenging situation compared to what we have now — or to leave.”

“We are faced with a very hard and difficult dilemma and we need to consult closely and I’m of course prepared to sit down with the new Biden administration to go into this very difficult decision. There is no black and white, there is no easy answer, but we need to make those decisions early next year.” 

NATO members first will need to know the Biden administration’s plans, and the man to deliver them likely will be Biden’s defense secretary nominee, Lloyd Austin, who oversaw the war in Afghanistan as the leader of U.S. Central Command. In his presidential campaign, Biden said that he favors keeping a small force in Afghanistan for counterterrrorism purposes, but has not outlined details or troop numbers. On Wednesday, the president-elect said the country needed Austin “to help bring to an end forever wars.” 

“The threats we face today are not the same as those we faced ten or even five years ago. We must prepare to meet the challenges of the future, not keep fighting the wars of the past,” Biden said, in Wilmington, Del., while calling for increased diplomacy. “We must build a foreign policy that leads with diplomacy and revitalizes our alliances, putting American leadership back at the table and rallying the world to meet global threats to our security.”

Public opinion on military intervention in Afghanistan is hard to gauge. While many respond favorably in recent surveys when asked if they support ending “endless wars,” the same will support having U.S. troops in forward deployments and foreing interventions when American security is at stake.   

“Of course public support matters,” Stoltenberg said. “No one wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary. But at the same time, we realize that if we leave too soon we may pay a very high price.” Intervening in other countries with military force is among the hardest decisions for allied countries, he said, and NATO in its history has been criticized for not intervening in prior conflicts such as in the Balkans and Rwanda, in the 1990s. There was broad public support among NATO allies to intervene against ISIS, he said. “It’s hard to end these conflicts. It’s hard to find a political solution.” 

Whatever the path forward in Afghanistan, it likely will look less and less like the war many remember it to be. “The presence today is absolutely and completely different from the presence we had a few years ago,” Stoltenberg said. Where once NATO had 100,000 troops in large combat operations, today roughly 11,000 troops mostly train local forces. “The Afghans are on the front line, and we are supporting them.” 

Beyond the Afghanistan issue, there will be a NATO Summit at its Brussels headquarters sometime later next spring and Biden is expected to attend. There, leaders are expected to consider the NATO 2030 plan put forth in November that calls for an agreed strategy on China, and for the first new NATO strategic concept since 2010.

“It’s about NATO once again changing because the world is changing. And China is becoming more and more important for our security,” Stoltenberg said, from their military buildup to their treatment of democracies like Hong Kong and human rights.

“It’s not about us going to the South China Sea, it’s about China coming closer to us,” he said. “We see China in the Arctic, we see them in Africa, we see them investing heavily in critical infrastructure in our own countries, 5G, telecommunications, we see them in cyberspace… so it’s about defending ourselves.” 

As NATO looks past the Trump era, Stoltenberg said his objective is to make sure to keep a strong military alliance but to “become a stronger political alliance.” 

“There’s no way to hide differences between NATO allies on a wide range of issues. But then we need to sit down, come together, consult, and find ways forward despite our differences.”