NATO defense ministers agreed here Thursday to begin preparing for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of this year, as a senior U.S. military official warned that “the progress we’ve made is not sustainable” by Afghan forces without an ongoing U.S. and international troop presence.
The alliance also expressed strong concern for ongoing events in Ukraine and urged Russia “not to take any action that could create misunderstanding.”
Disquiet over the situation in Ukraine dominated a scheduled two-day NATO meeting whose agenda was focused on alliance defense budgets and Afghanistan. In a series of statements, NATO has tried simultaneously to warn Russia not to intervene while insisting that there is no indication it intends to.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was “arranging a call” to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in light of pro-Russia demonstrations in Crimea and an announcement of Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border.
“It’s a time for very cool, wise leadership, on the Russian side and on everybody’s side,” Hagel said in a news conference. “Yes, we’re concerned, and we will continue to talk to our Russian counterparts about what their motives are.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has “no information indicating Russia has any plans to intervene militarily.” He added, “Having said that, obviously, it doesn’t make things easier that there is a coincidence between the timing of this exercise and the ongoing events in the Ukraine.”
Rasmussen also said that Ukraine, whose acting defense minister met with NATO Thursday morning, has not requested any alliance assistance.
On Afghanistan, NATO’s action followed President Obama’s order Tuesday to the U.S. military to develop plans for a so-called “zero option” of complete withdrawal if the Afghan government continues to refuse to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States.
NATO and U.S. defense officials have made clear that their expectation, and their strong preference, is that they will remain in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism missions after the last combat forces leave in December.
SOURCE: Karen DeYoung
The Washington Post