KABUL (Reuters) - NATO countries have strong reasons to maintain support for Afghanistan and will respond to U.S. President Trump’s call for more troops and funding, the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.
“It is in the interest of Europe, of NATO allies to help stabilize Afghanistan,” Stoltenberg said during a visit to Kabul with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, which was overshadowed by a militant attack on Kabul airport.
Trump made clear last month that he expected NATO to step up its contribution in Afghanistan when he announced a tougher new strategy against the Taliban and other militant forces. However the political reaction in Europe has been mixed with little public appetite for more involvement.
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is working to form a government after last weekend’s election, her conservative party backs the mission. But senior figures from her two likely coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats and environmental Greens, have expressed scepticism.
In Italy, the anti-establishment 5-Star party, riding high in opinion polls ahead of elections early next year, has said it would pull Italy’s force of more than 1,000 troops out.
“Germany has been a strong supporter of the NATO mission in Afghanistan for many many years,” Stoltenberg said. “Germany is the lead nation in the north (of Afghanistan) and I‘m absolutely certain that Germany will continue to provide support.”
Stoltenberg said NATO assistance was aimed at ensuring Afghanistan did not become “a safe haven for international terrorism.” But he reiterated that NATO troops would not be returning to the combat role they ended in 2014 and would continue training and advising Afghan forces as well as providing equipment and funding.
“We are not going back to the big combat operations we had before. It will still be a non-combat operation.”
Stoltenberg said Afghan forces, which have suffered thousands of casualties fighting the insurgency, had been “managing a very difficult situation”.
But they had prevented the Taliban from gaining control of any major provincial centers and would be boosted by plans to strengthen the Afghan Air Force and Special Forces units.
“There will be setbacks but if we look at what we have achieved so far, we have been able to build a strong Afghan national security force and we’ll build it even stronger.”
Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Mark Heinrich