China and Russia threats, Afghanistan war drags


WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will meet with members of the world’s most powerful military alliance on Wednesday for the first time since joining the Biden administration.

NATO meets Wednesday and Thursday to discuss an array of challenges facing the 30-member group. The virtual meetings will be a glimpse into President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda and comes on the heels of his calls to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America’s closest allies.

“When we strengthen our alliances we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they reach our shores,” Biden said during a speech at the State Department. “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage,” he added.

Biden’s message broke sharply from his predecessor’s “America First” policy, which on occasion seemed to vex NATO members.

Under former President Donald Trump, Kay Bailey Hutchison served as the connective tissue between Washington and the alliance in her role as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO.

“There was never a rift or tension among the ambassadors and me,” she told CNBC when asked if the alliance was impacted by Trump’s approach.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets NATO’s US Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison on the second day of the NATO summit, in Brussels, on July 12, 2018.

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt | AFP | Getty Images

“Now, that’s not to say that some of the allies weren’t upset with what the president had said or done on a given day. But overall we had a great relationship and always kept everyone informed,” Hutchison explained, elaborating on the wider policy goals shared by NATO members.

“I think the alliance is strong and unified and I think everyone knows that the U.S. is essential in NATO,” the former Senator from Texas said, adding that the United States will continue to take a prominent leadership role within the group.

Ahead of the virtual meetings this week, Hutchison shared what she expects will be high on the alliance’s agenda.

Addressing power competition

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, attend the Tsinghua Universitys ceremony, at Friendship Palace on April 26, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Getty Images

The tension between Beijing and Washington soared under the Trump administration, which escalated a trade war and worked to ban Chinese technology companies from doing business in the United States.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration blamed China for a wide range of grievances, including intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices and recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden previously said that his approach to China would be different from his predecessor’s in that he would work more closely with allies in order to mount pushback against Beijing.

“We will confront China’s economic abuses,” Biden explained in a speech at the State Department, describing Beijing as America’s “most serious competitor.”

“But we’re also ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We’ll compete from a position of strength by building back better at home and working with our allies and partners.”

Hutchison said that many of the issues the Biden administration looks to address with China also fall into shared interests held by the NATO alliance.

“We have been really focusing on China much more in the last two years,” Hutchison said. “When the Belt and Road initiative came out and then, of course, the crackdown on Hong Kong, Covid-19 and the lack of transparency on that, all really brought China into the NATO radar.”

If all of us speak with one voice, we can have more influence on China.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

Hutchison explained that the members will discuss the great power competition, which is used to describe the friction between the United States and China in shaping security practices and setting trade norms worldwide. Russia is sometimes included as an element in the power struggle.

She also said that as the Pentagon began to stand up a new military branch dedicated to space, the United States Space Force, the NATO alliance also expanded its mission and declared space a security domain.

“That was because China is doing a lot up there with satellites and artificial intelligence, and we are now having to focus on that and begin to build deterrence as best we can,” Hutchison said of the move by NATO leaders to include space in its security portfolio.

“Cyber and hybrid, of course, is another big area where both China and Russia are active,” she added.

‘There was never any let-up in NATO regarding Russia’

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the St. George Hall at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images

Like China, Biden has also said that the United States will have a different approach in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I made it very clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russian aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens, are over,” Biden said earlier this month.

“We will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners,” he added.

The White House is currently reviewing other maligned Russian actions including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan and potential election interference.

“There was never any let-up in NATO regarding Russia,” Hutchison told CNBC when asked about the alliance’s approach. “And I don’t think there’ll be a change in course because I think we’ve been tough about Russia,” she added.

Hutchison said that in the wake of the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the NATO alliance was swift to condemn Moscow’s actions.

“There was a unanimous vote of our allies calling out Russia on the Navalny issue when it was first, of course, clear that Russia had poisoned this man,” Hutchison said.

Last summer, Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany from a Russian hospital after he became ill following reports that something was added to his tea. Russian doctors treating Navalny denied that the Kremlin critic had been poisoned and blamed his comatose state on low blood sugar levels.

A still image taken from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is accused of flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement, during the announcement of a court verdict in Moscow, Russia February 2, 2021.

Simonovsky District Court | via Reuters

In September, the German government said that the 44-year-old Russian dissident was poisoned by a chemical nerve agent, describing the toxicology report as providing “unequivocal evidence.” The nerve agent was in the family of Novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied having a role in Navalny’s poisoning.

Last month, Navalny flew to Russia from Berlin, Germany where he spent nearly half a year recovering. He was arrested at passport control and later sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Hutchison also explained that the alliance will need to discuss the messy, multibillion-dollar deal between Russia and Turkey, which led to unprecedented U.S. sanctions on the NATO member.

In 2017, Turkish President Recep Erdogan brokered a deal reportedly worth $2.5 billion with Putin for the S-400 missile system.

The S-400, a mobile surface-to-air missile system, is said to pose a risk to the NATO alliance as well as the F-35, America’s most expensive weapons platform.

In short, these two big-ticket weapons systems that Turkey hoped to add to its budding arsenal could be used against each other.

You can’t work out a Russian missile defense system in the NATO alliance and have business as usual.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

A Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Sergei Malgavko | TASS via Getty Images

In October, the Pentagon and State Department issued strong rebukes following reports that Turkey’s military tested the Russia-made missile system.

In December, Washington slapped sanctions on the country.

“It’s a huge problem and it’s one that Turkey kept thinking, apparently, that this could all be worked out. But you can’t work out a Russian missile defense system in the NATO alliance and have business as usual,” Hutchison explained to CNBC.

“Everyone in NATO knows it’s a problem and Turkey needs to find an off-ramp for this,” she added.

The looming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and Georgian Army soldiers run to the extraction point during Operation Northern Lion II in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 3, 2013.

U.S. Marine Corps photo

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.57 trillion since Sept. 11, 2001, according to a Defense Department report.

The war in Afghanistan, which is now America’s longest conflict, began 19 years ago and has cost U.S. taxpayers $193 billion, according to the Pentagon.

Last February the United States brokered a deal with the Taliban that would usher in a permanent cease-fire and reduce the U.S. military’s footprint from approximately 13,000 troops to 8,600 by mid-July last year. By May 2021, all foreign forces would leave the war-weary country, according to the deal.

There are about 2,500 U.S. troops in the country. Currently, the U.S. is slated to withdraw American service members from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

“I told all the Biden people when we were in transition that they were really going to have to make the decision about whether they want to draw down by the first of May or draw down over a different time period or not draw down and keep troops there,” Hutchison explained to CNBC.

“All the vibes I’m getting, without talking to anyone specifically, is that they are going to leave troops there and not draw down further,” she added.

Read more: Pentagon uncertain on pullback date for U.S. troops in Afghanistan

Last month, the Pentagon said the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan would be contingent on the Taliban’s commitments to uphold a peace deal brokered last year.

“The Taliban have not met their commitments,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters during a Jan. 28 press briefing.

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby speaks at press conference at the Pentagon January 28, 2021 in Arlington,Virginia.

Yasin Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

He added that Austin was reviewing the matter and had discussed the path forward in the war-torn country with NATO allies and partners.

“It is under discussion with our partners and allies to make the best decisions going forward on our force presence in Afghanistan,” Kirby said, adding that the Biden administration has not yet made a determination.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg previously warned that leaving Afghanistan too soon or in an uncoordinated effort could present unintended consequences for the world’s largest military organization.

“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq,” the NATO chief said, referring to Islamic State militants. 

In February, the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally mandated panel under the United States Institute of Peace, recommended keeping U.S. troops in the war-torn country “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”

The group wrote, in a report released on February 3, that the United States has a significant interest in safeguarding Afghanistan from “becoming again a safe haven for terrorists.”

“We believe that a U.S. withdrawal will provide the terrorists an opportunity to reconstitute and our judgment is that reconstitution will take place within about 18 to 36 months,” former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told a virtual United States Institute of Peace audience. Dunford, a retired four-star Marine general, co-chairs the study group.

“We also conclude and there will be no surprise to those who follow Afghanistan, that the Afghan forces are highly dependent on U.S. funding in operational support and they’ll continue to be for some time to come,” Dunford said.

NATO joined the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003 and currently has more than 7,000 troops in the country. The NATO mission in Afghanistan was launched after the alliance activated its mutual defense clause — known as Article 5 — for the first time in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

“I think there’s a lot that will be decided and it will be pivotal what the administration and Secretary Austin say,” Hutchison told CNBC. “The allies are going to be looking for what the U.S. is intending because of course we provide the enablers for the train-and-advise mission of NATO there,” she added.

Hutchison also added that the alliance may discuss the possibility of expanding the training-and-advising mission in Iraq.