In the eyes of many observers, a NATO failure to consolidate peace in Afghanistan would call into question the organization’s perceived status as the world’s most effective military alliance precisely at a time when NATO leaders are eager to demonstrate its potential contributions to global security with an Asian-focused Washington. But the Alliance faces many challenges in Afghanistan, ranging from the insurgents’ resilience in key sectors of the country to the loss of support for its presence among many members of the Afghan public, highlighted by the massive protests and insider attacks by Afghans following the burning of Korans by U.S. prison guards, several mass killings of civilians by NATO actions in Afghanistan, and various public opinion polls. NATO’s relations with Pakistan remain strained over cross-border incidents and Islamabad’s continuing terrorist ties. Above all, the Afghan government and its military and police forces still experience major difficulties in providing security, good governance, economic development, and the rule of law. Despite extensive foreign training programs and other NATO support, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) still have at best modest capacity to defeat the Taliban insurgents without the continued and extensive assistance of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). NATO needs more reliable and effective Afghan partners to achieve a successful transition to a sovereign, safe and secure Afghanistan able to survive without continued NATO support.
At their November 2010 Lisbon summit, the NATO heads of government, along with their ISAF partners, established 2014 as the date for transiting to an Afghan-led war. Coalition members also pledged to increase their training, advising, and equipping missions to the ANSF to facilitate this transition. NATO also signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government that pledges collaboration beyond 2014. At their May 2012 Chicago summit, NATO leaders established an interim milestone of mid-2013 when ISAF’s mission will shift from providing primarily direct combat assistance to the ANSF against the Taliban insurgency to one of rendering almost exclusively logistical, training, and other support. The Afghan army and police are supposed to assume responsibility for security throughout the country, but NATO will retain sufficient assets in Afghanistan through 2014 to resume direct combat operations if necessary. The Chicago summit also agreed on the size of the ANSF beyond 2014 (a gradual reduction from 350,000 troops to 230,000) and committed in principle to help the Afghan government pay for this force. The NATO members and their nonmember partners in ISAF also pledged to continue NATO’s military role in Afghanistan beyond 2014, though with a different name than ISAF and focused on training, advising, and providing other support as well as fighting terrorists. Finally, the NATO governments reaffirmed their support for an Afghan-led peace effort with the Taliban with the stipulation that any deal protect all Afghans, including women.
As of now, there are some 66,000 U.S. troops, 37,000 NATO forces, and as many as 100,000 foreign security and military support contractors fighting on behalf of the Afghan government. More than 3,250 ISAF members have been killed in action during the campaign, which began with the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, of which more than 2,000 have been American soldiers. ISAF had 130,000 soldiers at its peak strength in 2011, when 50 countries contributed combat personnel to the mission. Western governments have been gradually reducing forces since then. For example, September 2012 marked the completion of the withdrawal of the 30,000 U.S. surge force that had been deployed into Afghanistan in Obama’s first term. Their presence appears to have stabilized the front, at least in the south, by forcing the Taliban to end large-unit operations and return to conducting terrorist bombings and shows of force at public events. In addition to these tactical victories, the surge provided additional time to strengthen the ANSF, whose development during the past decade has encountered numerous obstacles, and prepare them to assume the lead role in combating the Taliban insurgents. Nonetheless, the durability of these gains remains under question as NATO withdraws its forces and reduces its other military support. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that 34,000 U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan within a year. That will bring the current number of U.S. troops down from around 66,000 to 32,000, with further rapid decreases after the April 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan. The other foreign troops, currently numbering 37,000, will likely follow a comparable glide path.
When Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with U.S. officials in January 2013 in Washington, they agreed to accelerate the military transition timetable to this spring, when the ANSF would assume the lead combat role and when ISAF would focus mostly on training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). Karzai professed to be indifferent to the number of U.S. troops that would remain in Afghanistan, saying that the quality of the overall relationship mattered more. Even so, he welcomed the withdrawal decision as signifying U.S. respect for Afghan sovereignty, noting that the United States reaffirmed its commitment to transfer to Afghan control all the detention centers and detainees in Afghanistan now under the Pentagon. In addition, Karzai welcomed that foreign troops would no longer deploy in Afghan villages but leave it to ANSF units to maintain local security. He said that the U.S.-Afghan relationship should evolve from its current unbalanced nature to that resembling the United States and Germany or Turkey, which hosts permanent and temporary U.S. military bases, respectively, but also have a rich non-military relationship with the United States and other countries. Obama confirmed that the pullback of U.S. troops from the villages should remove a source of friction between the two countries.
On February 22–23, 2013, NATO defense ministers discussed how many forces to keep in Afghanistan beyond 2014, what they would do, and how rapidly the other forces would depart. The numbers under consideration at that meeting ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with most of these troops coming from NATO countries as well as from a few NATO partners such as Australia. The United States might contribute between one half and two thirds to this total. The NATO ministers will now use this figure as a “planning” guidepost for pacing their own 2013–2014 reductions. This figure represents the middle-range of the three figures the Pentagon presented to NATO last November. The larger NATO force would amount to roughly 18,000 to 23,000 troops, while the smallest option discussed last November was from 3,000 to 6,000 troops.
There has been no serious discussion of a “zero option” as a troops presence, but keeping NATO military forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 depends on NATO countries and the Afghan government negotiating various Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) that would define the legal rights and responsibilities of the foreign forces. In the case of the United States, the deadline for reaching a SOFA, also known as the bilateral security agreement, is one year after the signing of last May’s Afghan-U.S. Strategic Partnership Agreement. In that accord, the United States pledged economic, security, and diplomatic assistance to Afghanistan for the decade after the 2014 withdrawal date, while Afghan officials agreed to improve accountability, transparency and the rule of law, and to protect the rights of all Afghans, regardless of gender. When he met Karzai this January in Washington, Obama insisted that the new bilateral security agreement would have to provide immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which Karzai accepted in principle. But the two presidents provided little detail regarding how they planned to implement the Strategic Partnership Agreement and how the Afghan government would follow through on its commitment to make social, economic, and political reforms.
Determining how many ISAF troops need to stay after 2014 and how fast the other soldiers can leave the country requires establishing in advance what specific missions NATO will need to perform after 2014. In principle, these tasks could include helping defend the Afghan population, protecting foreign civilian workers, killing and capturing key Taliban leaders, and building the ANSF through further training and advising in accordance with the transition plan NATO developed in 2010 and reaffirmed at its May 2012 Chicago summit. According to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the February 2013 defense ministerial meeting included discussions on “preparing a new and different NATO-led mission after 2014 to train, advise and assist Afghan Security Forces.” NATO would have training bases in all four sections of the country as well as in a central headquarters in Kabul. The training mission might keep the current leading roles of Germany in the north, Italy in the west, and the United States in the east and the south. The NATO trainers would work with ANSF units only at the level of a corps and conduct all their training on bases rather than in the field.
In addition to the NATO mission to train, assist and support the ANSF, a separate counterterrorism force under U.S. command would kill and capture high-value targets like Taliban leaders. Unlike the NATO trainers, this counterterrorism force of several thousand U.S. military personnel would have U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) embed with lower-level Afghan units such as at the brigade level. Some of these SOF personnel could be dual-hatted to both the U.S. counterterrorism and the NATO training missions.
In this regard, the recent Afghan government decision to order all U.S. SOF to leave the key province of Wardak near Kabul is worrisome. Beyond the allegations of abuses, the Karzai government appears concerned that the training of local Afghan forces could empower independent Afghan militias that will challenge its authority. Various warlords have indeed given indications of seeking to reestablish independent military forces, raising the risk that Afghanistan will return to civil war after 2014. But if the SOF, typically the most effective NATO combat trainers, cannot operate in the field, then the transition to an Afghan combat lead will be further imperiled. ISAF’s decreasing conventional combat presence is also leading NATO to rely more on air power to achieve its mission, including the growing use of drones. These air strikes occasionally inflict civilian casualties, which makes them controversial. Last year, NATO decided to limit the use of air strikes in populated areas; the Afghan government issued similar restrictions this year on ANSF units calling in its own air strikes. Analysts believe that it will not be until 2017 that the Afghan Air Force, whose presence could at least strengthen local pride and morale, will be able to operate without substantial foreign assistance. Another source of U.S.-Afghan tensions – their dispute over the Afghan government’s insistence on controlling the country’s prison system – has also not really been solved. After Karzai put his foot down on this demand, the Pentagon has transferred thousands of its detainees to Afghan government supervision, though it is possible that some of the most dangerous remain under U.S. custody or were moved elsewhere. The U.S. fears that the Afghans will employ a “catch and release” policy in which U.S. forces capture insurgents who are then released by the Afghans and quickly rejoin the battle.
The past two years have seen the ANSF assume responsibility for ensuring security in an increasing number of provinces, cities, and districts in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. government, Afghan forces began leading the majority of operations in July 2012 and now lead approximately 80 percent of operations. The reality of this transition is evident in the declining number of NATO casualties and the rising number of Afghan combat deaths. Despite several high-profile showcase attacks in Kabul and elsewhere, the ANSF has thus far been able to maintain overall security in these transferred areas. But coming months will see the Afghan forces assume responsibility for some of the country’s most insurgent-infested areas.
Despite its growing responsibilities, the ANSF still suffers from certain weaknesses and gaps, such as inadequate logistics and intelligence, little aviation and firepower, an ethnic imbalance, and a poor ability to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. Further work is needed to teach the Afghans communications, gunnery, engineering, weapons maintenance, and logistics skills. The Pentagon concluded that, as of late September 2012, only one of the 23 ANSF brigades could operate independently of ISAF units, even with the help of coalition advisers. The fact that a third of the ANA must be replaced each year makes it hard to build the force’s capabilities. Not only do one fourth of the recruits fail to reenlist after their three-year term is over, but ANA units suffer from high desertion and defection rates. The ANP needs even more extensive help before it can fulfill its important mission of preventing the Taliban from returning to areas conquered by the ANA. It does not help if the ANA clears the Taliban from a locality but the ANP cannot hold it or supply actionable intelligence on Taliban activity in the locality.
NATO’s ability to address these weaknesses is hampered by the rising fears of “green-on-blue” attacks in which supposedly friendly Afghan soldiers turn their weapons on their ISAF advisers. These “insider attacks” represent a major problem since they exploit a crucial vulnerability by seeking to disrupt the vital ISAF partnership and training programs with their ANSF colleagues. In 2007–2012, ANSF members killed or wounded almost 300 coalition forces. The highest annual total of insider attacks occurred in 2012, when there were at least 60 confirmed cases of NATO advisers being killed by infiltrators, impersonators, or spontaneous action by ANSF members, who justify their attacks as retaliation for some obnoxious act committed by the Western countries, such as the burning of Korans or the showing of anti-Islamic films. NATO can clearly attribute 10–15% of the attacks directly to Taliban action, whereas it is believed that another 10–15% may be linked to the insurgency. In most cases, the attacks were due mostly to personal grievances or spontaneous action. Yet, the Taliban tactic of claiming responsibility for all these attacks has unnerved ISAF advisers, who now interact less with their Afghan counterparts. On several occasions, NATO has had to remove its advisers from Afghan work posts and suspend partnered operations in the field. The French government explicitly cited the insider attacks to justify withdrawing its combat forces earlier than originally planned.
The rapid increase in the ANSF’s size has contributed to this insider problem since it invariably led to a relaxation of recruitment and supervisory standards. Between December 2009 and October 2012, the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) helped the ANSF grow by more than 140,000 personnel, to some 352,000 soldiers. Almost 5,000 NTM-A trainers serve in Afghan institutions, while some 400 ISAF military and police advisory teams deploy with ANSF units in the field. They have trained more than 3,200 ANSF instructors in a “train-the-trainers” program aimed to allow NTM-A to reduce its presence like the rest of NATO. Even if only one in every 500 Afghan soldiers turns on ISAF, that yields dozens of attacks given the ANSF’s large size.
Afghan and ISAF governments are attempting to tackle this problem by improving their vetting and screening of new ANSF recruits; enhancing their counter-intelligence efforts; and making ISAF personnel more culturally aware of Afghan sensitivities. NATO’s preferred technological approach to security problems will not yield a solution to this challenge. The foreign forces must rely on fellow Afghans to use their superior cultural knowledge and human intelligence to prevent such infiltration. Furthermore, NATO’s plan to shift the ISAF mission from having coalition forces partnering and operating with similar ANSF units to their providing security assistance, in which small ISAF advisory units (“security force assistance teams”) are embedded in Afghan units at the NATO brigade-level as enablers and trainers, should reduce the incidents of insider attacks. Most of the green-on-blue attacks do not involve soldiers who serve together on a constant basis. Instead, it is naturally easier to kill people with whom there have been only episodic or random contacts.
Partly to counter this perception, NATO planners appear to be reconsidering their earlier decision to reduce the ANSF to 230,000 troops after 2015 for affordability reasons. The costs of recruiting, training, equipping and operating the current ANSF level of 352,000 would amount to $6.5 billion per year, whereas maintaining the smaller force would require approximately $4.1 billion annually, depending on what kind of equipment and other support its foreign partners provide. At present, the United States covers $5.7 billion of the yearly bill, whereas the Afghan government covers $500 million and the other foreign partners provide $300 million. Nonetheless, some U.S. defense leaders and members of Congress want to keep the larger force until the Taliban threat is more clearly under control. The 230,000 troop figure was based on an analysis done by the Center for Army Analysis a few years ago. During his Senate confirmation hearings last year, the new ISAF commander, General Joseph Dunlop, who replaced General John Allen in February, said that he would revisit that recommendation.
The February 2013 NATO defense ministerial meeting formally considered supporting the larger force until 2018 as a means to better ensure Afghanistan’s security but perhaps even more importantly as a means to counter the “abandonment narrative” so common in Afghanistan’s history, which NATO planners see as a greater threat to the Alliance’s campaign goals than the Taliban. As one NATO official put it, “the will and the endurance and the commitment of the coalition equal the confidence and hope on the part of the Afghans.” Sustaining the larger force will actually require greater financial contributions from non-NATO countries since European governments and the United States all find themselves in an enduring budget crisis.
The abandonment-entrapment narrative continues to play out in Afghanistan. Although they have pledged to continue some kind of post-ISAF mission after 2014, NATO governments are eager to remove almost all their combat forces in the next two years regardless of the situation on the ground. The earlier insistence on a condition-based pullout, that would relate ISAF troop withdrawals to concrete evidence of improved Afghan military capacity, has been largely replaced by a fixed withdrawal timetable. This approach, while corresponding to political realities in the Western democracies, unfortunately feeds Afghan expectations that the West will once again abandon their country and emboldens Iran and Pakistan to make plans presuming a post-NATO security vacuum in Afghanistan that they are eager to fill.
In addition to the combat issues, a key test for this new arrangement could be how successful Afghanistan’s 2014 national elections turn out to be. If the Afghan political institutions perform as badly as in the 2009 ballot, if the ANSF fails to provide a safe and secure electoral environment, or if Karzai decides to renege on his vow not run for reelection, then international enthusiasm for the entire Afghan project would substantially diminish. In his January 2013 visit to Washington, Karzai reaffirmed that Afghanistan would hold free and fair elections in 2014 with international observers but he expressed disapproval of having substantial foreign interference in the process. As the 2014 ballot approaches, NATO is sure to press Karzai to hold a free and fair ballot, but NATO’s decreasing presence and interest in Afghanistan is reducing U.S. leverage in this and other areas. During his time as ISAF Commander, General Allen repeatedly tried to explain to Karzai, who has been Afghanistan’s leader for more than a decade, that now was his chance to solidify his legacy as well as Afghanistan’s transition to a sovereign and democratic state. Yet, it is still unclear whether Karzai will become a statesman or remain a flawed political figure that NATO is doomed to deal with for four more years.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.