Defence Ministers from NATO and ISAF-partner nations, after a two-day meeting in Brussels on the 09-10 Oct 2012, approved the first stage of planning for the NATO-led training, advisory and assistance mission in Afghanistan post 2014. The approved broad framework will be sent to the defence planners to work out the nuts and bolts of the mission “well before the end of 2013”.
This decision was followed up by a visit to Kabul on 18 Oct 2012 by the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s highest decision-making body), NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and ambassadors from several partner nations. They met with the Afghan President, other members of the Afghan Government and Parliament and also with the Commander of ISAF and commanders from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Speaking at joint press-conference during the visit, the NATO Secretary General said the alliance will hold its timeline and hand over full responsibility for security to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Further, the international community remains committed to help Afghan forces in the ongoing security transition. The current NATO visit was to reaffirm this commitment.
Mr Rasmussen also reiterated that insider attacks “will not change our strategy,” and the threat these attacks posed will be curbed. NATO will offer a new mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces on completion of the security transition. The NATO chief also highlighted the international community’s commitment to “promote economic and social development” in Afghanistan.
In an interview after the visit Mr Rasmussen said individual NATO allies are providing Afghan security forces with some military equipment to build up capacity. Also, the 352,000-strong ANSF possessed high morale and determination to take full responsibility for security in Afghanistan. The main objectives in a post-2014 Afghanistan would be capacity building of the security forces to the required levels and improved local governance.
The NATO/ISAF visit to Afghanistan put out two messages; one there would be no accelerated drawdown of the forces before the scheduled date and second, there would be a continued U.S presence in Afghanistan post 2014.
Speaking at the same joint conference in Kabul, the Afghan President made two remarks which indicated a position opposed to the opinion put forth by the NATO Secretary General. Karzai said “Afghans are ready to expedite the process of transition if necessary and willing as well .So this is in all aspects good news for us and good news for NATO.” A NATO diplomat said that there had been no discussion of speeding up the 2014 timetable during the meeting between Mr. Karzai and the alliance chief.
This may be astute gamesmanship by Mr. Karzai giving an impression that he is eager take on the responsibility for security of the country and NATO’s drawdown schedule is mainly influenced by their interests. There are requests from ISAF military commanders to maintain their current strength until the end of the 2013 summer “fighting season”, lest reduced force levels render their position precarious. Operational arguments against an accelerated drawdown have also centred on the Afghan forces inability (or adequate capacity) to perform many crucial operational tasks such air support, bomb disposal ect. One essential area of dependence is casualty evacuation; which is currently based on air evacuation by NATO helicopters to state of the art trauma facilities.
This comes at a time when insider attacks are evolving into a confidence crisis of sorts and polls show that the 11-year war has little public support among NATO’s 28 member states, most of which are cutting defense budgets in response to the financial crises. It is estimated that at its current force levels in Afghanistan UK alone is spending about £2.5bn a year.
With his second remark the Afghan President touched upon the issue of immunity from prosecution for any American or NATO soldiers deployed in the country after 2014. Karzai reportedly told Rasmussen during talks that that the Afghan people might not “permit their government to grant immunity”, as the immunity for foreign forces is contingent upon ensuring security, stability and protecting Afghanistan’s borders. This remark of the Afghan President would have given U.S a feeling of déjà vu and unease.
The last American troops left Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011, sticking to a year-end withdrawal deadline outlined in a 2008 security agreement. Under the Obama-Biden plan U.S had hoped to maintain a military presence in Iraq beyond 2011, but Washington was unable to secure a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqis primarily on the issue of immunity for U.S. troops as the Iraqi government insisted that it would have to be endorsed by the Iraqi Parliament. The SOFA would have allowed a small US force in Iraq to train the Iraqi forces, to carry out counterterrorism missions, protect Iraqi airspace, and to maintain American influence.
Consequently, in 2012, a small number of U.S. military personnel remained in Iraq as an arm of the American embassy, and were responsible for facilitating Iraqi arms purchases and training. The inability of the US to secure a SOFA with Iraq did not make waves back home amidst the ‘euphoria’ of having the troops come home but the net result was an Iraq that is less stable domestically and even less reliable internationally than what the US had hoped for. Nine months down the line a unit of U.S Army Special Operations Forces has been deployed to Iraq and more U.S. soldiers may soon be on their way.
In the case of Afghanistan, May 1, 2012, US has signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement that envisions a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014. However it has not resulted, so far, in a SOFA that would facilitate an U.S troop presence beyond 2014. Given the Afghan President’s views on immunity for U.S. troops, many analysts feel this may pose some tricky situations to the NATO in the future.
What possibly worries the US is that the Afghan story is beginning to sound like the Iraqi one; and even worse, unlike in Iraq, it may not get a second chance to redeploy its troops after the final pull out in December 2014.
This article appeared at South Asia Monitor and reprinted with permission.