NATO member and partner nations have fought side-by-side with U.S. forces in Afghanistan for 17 years, after Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in 2001. But in recent years, the alliance has struggled to meet its troop commitments.
The U.S. currently has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan — 8,500 troops supporting the NATO-led Resolute Support mission to train-and-advise Afghan forces, and about 6,000 more as part of a counterterrorism mission.
But while NATO members and partner nations have committed to sending about 8,000 forces for the train-and-advise mission, the current number actually on the ground is about 4,000, according to a source familiar with military operations in Afghanistan.
The year before, when NATO had committed about 7,000, there were only about 2,000 actually on the ground, according to a former U.S. official.
Resolute Support spokesman Army Lt. Col. Marty O’Donnell did not confirm the current number of NATO boots on the ground, but said “the majority of the billets are filled or being filled.” He pointed to NATO troop contribution numbers of 7,754, but noted a disclaimer that said those numbers come directly from the members themselves, and are “indicative as they change regularly, in accordance with the deployment procedures of the troop contributing nations.”
“Either way, it is more than 4,000,” he said.
Troop commitments range from as many as 1,300 forces from Germany, to as few as two forces from Iceland. It is not clear which NATO members are not fulfilling their commitments, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has alluded to this problem in the months leading up this week’s NATO summit.
In March, he told reporters at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels when asked about the “gaps”: “I see it going in the right direction, but again, more work needs to be done.”
Luke Coffey, director of Heritage Foundation’s Foreign Policy Center, said that after 17 years of war, many European nations seem to have “checked out” of the war.
“Of course, there are some exceptions like Germany, Turkey, Italy, and the UK — all of which maintain sizable troop numbers in Afghanistan. But some of the other contributions are pathetic. For example, like Greece which has only six soldiers in Afghanistan or Spain having only 40,” he said.
U.S. troops have often complained about NATO members placing restrictions on the troops they do send to Afghanistan, known as “national caveats.” Some include not being able to fly at night or in rain, or patrolling a certain distance outside a base. Some troops cannot even leave the base, Coffey noted.
“During the height of the war in 2010-12 it was a major headache for US commanders. These days it is not such a big deal because the focus of the NATO mission is training and assisting the Afghan forces,” he said.
Only six NATO members and three NATO partners, including the U.S., pledged more more than half of one percent of their total active duty military for the Afghanistan mission, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Burden-sharing by NATO members has come under scrutiny by President Donald Trump, who spent this week in Brussels at a summit blasting those who did not meet a minimum two percent spending of their gross domestic product on their own defense — a benchmark that was established in 2002 and formally adopted in 2014.
Only four of 29 NATO members currently meet that benchmark, and only 16 members have plans to do so by 2024.
At the end of this week’s NATO summit, members reaffirmed their commitment to the mission, extended funding for Afghan forces beyond 2020, and expressed support for the Afghan president’s offer to the Taliban for peace.
Still, members announced increased commitments on Wednesday. The United Kingdom pledged 440 more forces, bringing the total pledged contribution up to 1,090. O’Donnell said the Czech parliament and Ukraine have also approved sending more troops, increasing the number to 380 and 29 respectively.
Germany is also expected to increase its troops by an additional 30 percent, or 390 troops. In addition, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, new members to the NATO-led Resolute Support coalition, has also pledged to contribute troops.
There are signs if the U.S. continues to bear most of the war’s costs, Trump’s patience could wear thin.
The president last year reluctantly agreed to maintain and even increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, despite what he said was his instinct to pull out. He had campaigned on bringing troops back home from Afghanistan, and complained about the high costs of the war.
The U.S. has spent about $50 billion on the war per year, and will spend more than $60 billion in 2019.
Although commanders have cited progress, and highlight the Afghan president’s recent offer to the Taliban for peace talks, the Afghan government still only controls or influences about 65 percent of the population in Afghanistan, according to a recent government progress report.
Although that is up from 60 percent last year, it is still short of the 80 percent goal, which is expected to take at least another year.
Last weekend, a U.S. soldier was killed by an Afghan soldier that U.S. forces were training. On Thursday, a U.S. special operations member was killed in Afghanistan during a combat operation, bringing the total of U.S. troops killed this year in Afghanistan up to four.
The Pentagon is reportedly reviewing the Afghan War strategy in anticipation of a White House request, according to Reuters.
Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and businessman who has informally advised the president on Afghanistan, said in a recent op-ed that the costs are unsustainable. He wrote in RealClearPolitics on Wednesday:
America is a great nation, but it cannot spend blood and treasure endlessly. We plan to spend over $60 billion — more than the U.K.’s total defense spending, or our annual Homeland Security budget — just on our failing Afghanistan effort in 2019 alone. That excludes another $1 trillion in future health care costs for wounded vets.
Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a realist defense think tank, said the U.S. should stop throwing more money into Afghanistan:
Throwing more good men and tens of billions of dollars won’t have any long-term impact on the nature of the conflict. The war is at best a stalemate and a never-ending misappropriation of resources. There is no U.S. national security interest — or NATO interest — in keeping this thing going for another seventeen years. Because that looks like where we’re headed if the White House doesn’t reassess.
But Coffey said the NATO train-and-advise mission is “very important” and European leaders need to do a better job at explaining it.
“You cannot defend on the goal line. This is why NATO is in Afghanistan. Seventeen years late, leaders in Europe need to do a better job explaining to their publics why the mission in Afghanistan still matters,” he said.
The story has been updated.