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The US joins NATO conferences whereas China and Russia threaten and the conflict in Afghanistan drags on

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

NATO meets on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss a number of challenges for the 30-person group. The virtual meetings will provide a glimpse into President Joe Biden's foreign policy agenda and follow his demands to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America's closest allies.

"When we strengthen our alliances, we increase our power and our ability to disrupt threats before they reach our shores," said Biden during a speech at the State Department. "America cannot afford to be absent from the world stage any longer," he added.

Biden's message broke sharply from his predecessor's "America First" policy, which at times seemed to annoy NATO members.

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

"There was never any rift or tension between the ambassadors and me," she told CNBC when asked if the alliance was influenced by Trump's approach.

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

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt | AFP | Getty Images

"That's not to say that some of the allies weren't upset about what the president said or did on a particular day. But overall, we had a great relationship and kept everyone informed," Hutchison said, moving on on the whole a political goal of NATO members.

"I think the alliance is strong and unitary, and I think everyone knows the US is essential to NATO," said the former Texas Senator, adding that the United States continues to be a pre-eminent leadership role within the United States Group will take over.

Ahead of this week's virtual meetings, Hutchison shared what she believes will be high on the Alliance's agenda.

Combating the power competition

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

Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Getty Images

Tensions between Beijing and Washington increased under the Trump administration, which escalated a trade war and prevented Chinese tech companies from doing business in the US.

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

Biden previously said that his stance on China would differ from that of his predecessor in that he would work more closely with allies to achieve a backlash against Beijing.

"We will face China's economic abuse," said Biden in a speech at the State Department, describing Beijing as America's "most serious competitor."

"But we are also ready to work with Beijing if it is in America's interest. We will compete from a position of strength by improving at home and working with our allies and partners."

Hutchison said many of the problems the Biden government is trying to solve with China also fall within the common interests of the NATO alliance.

"We have been much more focused on China in the past two years," said Hutchison. "When the Belt and Road initiative came out and then of course the crackdown on Hong Kong, Covid-19 and the lack of transparency in China really got on the NATO radar."

If we all speak with one voice, we can have more influence over China. "

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Former US ambassador to NATO

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

She also said that when the Pentagon began building a new military branch for space, the United States Space Force, the NATO alliance also expanded its mission, making space a security domain.

"That was because China is doing a lot up there with satellites and artificial intelligence, and we need to focus on that now and start doing the best we can to build deterrence," Hutchison said of NATO leaders' move to space into their world include security portfolio.

"Cyber ​​and hybrid are of course another big area that both China and Russia are active in," she added.

"With regard to Russia, there has never been a slack in NATO."

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters St. George's Hall in the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images

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

"I made it clear to President Putin, in a very different way than to my predecessor, that the days of the United States are over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions that are disrupting our elections, launching cyberattacks and poisoning its citizens," Biden said earlier this month .

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

The White House is currently investigating other malicious Russian actions, including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russian bounties for American troops in Afghanistan, and possible election nuisance.

"There has never been a slack in NATO on Russia," Hutchison told CNBC when asked about the alliance's approach. "And I don't think the course will change because I think we were tough on Russia," she added.

Hutchison said the NATO alliance was quick to condemn Moscow's actions following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

"There was a unanimous vote from our allies calling out Russia on the Navalny issue when it was initially clear that Russia had poisoned this man," said Hutchison.

Last summer, Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany from a Russian hospital after falling ill after reports that something had been added to his tea. Russian doctors treating Navalny denied that the Kremlin critic had been poisoned, blaming his comatose condition for low blood sugar levels.

A still from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused of disregarding the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement during the delivery of a court verdict in Moscow, Russia, on February 2, 2021.

Simonovsky District Court | via Reuters

In September, the German government announced that the 44-year-old Russian dissident had been poisoned by a chemical agent on nerves and described the toxicological report as "clear evidence". The nerve agent was in the Novichok family, which was developed by the Soviet Union.

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

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

Hutchison also stated that the alliance needs to discuss the chaotic, multi-billion dollar deal between Russia and Turkey that resulted in unprecedented US sanctions against the NATO member.

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

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

In short, these two great weapon systems that Turkey wanted to add to its burgeoning arsenal could be used against each other.

You cannot work out a Russian missile defense system in the NATO alliance and work as usual. "

Kay Bailey Hutchison

Former US ambassador to NATO

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

Sergei Malgavko | TASS via Getty Images

In October, the Pentagon and the State Department issued strong reprimands after reports that the Turkish military had tested the Russian-made missile system.

In December, Washington imposed sanctions on the country.

"It's a big problem that Turkey seems to have kept thinking about, that all of this could be resolved. But you can't work out a Russian missile defense system in the NATO alliance and work as usual," Hutchison told CNBC.

"Everyone in NATO knows it's a problem and Turkey needs to find an exit for it," she added.

The threatened withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and Georgian Army soldiers race 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 US taxpayers more than $ 1.57 trillion since September 11, 2001, according to a Department of Defense report.

The war in Afghanistan, now the longest conflict in America, began 19 years ago and cost US taxpayers $ 193 billion, according to the Pentagon.

Last February, the United States signed a treaty with the Taliban that would institute a permanent ceasefire and reduce the US military's footprint from around 13,000 soldiers to 8,600 by mid-July last year. According to the agreement, all foreign armed forces would have left the war-weary country by May 2021.

There are approximately 2,500 US troops in the country. The US is currently expected to withdraw American service members from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

"I told all of the Biden people during the transition that they really had to make the decision whether or not to withdraw and withdraw and keep troops there by May 1 or another period," Hutchison told CNBC.

"All the vibes I get without speaking to anyone specifically is that they are leaving troops there and not pulling them down any further," she added.

Continue reading: Pentagon uncertain about withdrawal date for US troops in Afghanistan

Last month, the Pentagon said the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan would depend on the Taliban's commitments to uphold a peace deal brokered last year.

"The Taliban have not fulfilled their obligations," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters during a press conference on January 28th.

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

Yasin Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

He added that Austin was looking into the matter and was discussing with NATO allies and partners the way forward in the war-torn country.

"It is currently under discussion with our partners and allies to make the best decisions about our presence in Afghanistan," said Kirby, adding that the Biden administration has not yet made a decision.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previously warned that leaving Afghanistan too early or in an uncoordinated manner could have unintended consequences for the largest military organization in the world.

"Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming a platform again for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our home countries. And ISIS could rebuild the terror caliphate that was lost in Syria and Iraq," said the NATO chief, referring to himself on militants of the Islamic state.

In February, the Afghanistan Study Group, a congressional non-partisan body of the United States Institute of Peace, recommended keeping US troops in the war-torn country "to give the peace process enough time to achieve an acceptable outcome."

The group wrote in a February 3 report that the United States has a significant interest in protecting Afghanistan from "returning to a safe haven for terrorists."

"We believe that a US withdrawal will give terrorists an opportunity to recover, and we believe that recovery will take place within 18 to 36 months," former chief of staff Joseph Dunford told a virtual audience at the United States Institute of Peace. Dunford, a retired four-star Marine general, is co-chair of the study group.

1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, watch CH-47 Chinook helicopters during a dust storm at Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan, July 17, while preparing for an air strike mission above circle.

U.S. Army photo

"We also conclude that it will come as no surprise to those who follow Afghanistan that the Afghan armed forces are, and will be, heavily reliant on US funding for operational support for some time to come," said Dunford.

NATO joined the international security effort in Afghanistan in 2003 and currently has more than 7,000 soldiers in the country. The NATO mission in Afghanistan began after the alliance first activated its mutual defense clause known as Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks.

"I think a lot will be decided and what the government and Secretary Austin say will be crucial," Hutchison told CNBC. "The allies will look for what the US is up to, because of course we are setting the stage for NATO's platoon and advisory mission there," she added.

Hutchison added that the alliance could discuss the possibility of expanding the training and advisory mission in Iraq.

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Katherine Clark