A series of contradictory statements about a possible earlier start to the (mainly US) foreign troop drawdown and a quicker handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, as well as debate over the likely form of NATO’s post-ISAF mission in Afghanistan has caused confusion in the media(1) and wider public sphere recently. Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN, sheds some light on what will really happen up to and beyond 2014.
Western politicians sometimes seem to be at odds even over their own plans in Afghanistan. This became apparent in February when US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta appeared to declare an earlier deadline in the war, telling reporters as he flew in from the Munich Security Conference to a meeting with NATO counterparts in Brussels, that ‘[o]ur goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013. Hopefully by mid to the latter part of 2013 we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role.’
This statement seemed to fast track previous plans by a year. And while he qualified the comments (‘It’s still a pretty robust role that we’ll be engaged in. It’s not going to be a kind of formal combat role that we are now. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready. We will be because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves.’) they still surprised his NATO counterparts such as German defence minister Thomas de Maizière, who said he had ‘followed the debate with surprise.’.
The rhetorical momentum to end foreign troops’ involvement in Afghanistan increased in mid-March, after the Quran burnings at Bagram base and subsequent country-wide protests, when President Hamed Karzai demanded that Western forces withdraw from ‘the villages’ and stated a bit optimistically that
‘Afghanistan is ready right now to take all security responsibilities completely’.
President Barack Obama swiftly moved to reassure everyone that ‘[w]hat we don’t want to do is to do [the transition] in a way that is just a rush for the exits’.
On the 2014 date, there are basically two points worth remembering: First, transition (or enteqal, in its Afghan term), is not the same as a withdrawal of Western troops. Although the ‘responsibility’ for defending the country against the insurgents will be gradually handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by the end of 2014, international forces will remain in the background in case something goes wrong. The ‘Afghan forces [are] in [the] lead, but not in control’, as a CNN headline put it recently. The need for this has already been proven in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, for example, where the Taleban attacked ANSF immediately after US forces withdrew, the national forces faltered and US troops had to return.
Secondly, there will be no full withdrawal of Western forces in 2014 anyway, just a reduction or, in NATO speak, a ‘drawdown’, likely to be accompanied by some sort of ‘mission accomplished’ message. The ‘drawdown’ will start soon; by the end of September this year, when the remaining 23,000 of 30,000 American so-called ‘surge forces’ sent to Afghanistan in 2009/2010 with the aim of ‘degrading the Taliban to levels manageable by the […] ANSF’ (Obama)(2) will be withdrawn. Other countries like France and Germany have also begun to bring the first of their troops home. But when Panetta and Karzai indicate that they prefer a quicker handover it does not automatically mean that more Western troops than planned will be withdrawn.
After transition, a ten-year ‘transformation’ phase is to follow. This term was invented for the latest international Afghanistan conference in Bonn held last December, with a two-fold aim. On the part of the West, this is to signal that Afghanistan will not be ‘left alone’ (again) after what many Afghans perceive as ‘the withdrawal’ – and which has led to widespread fear in the Afghan population. On the part of the Afghan government, and particularly of Kabul’s ‘transition czar’ Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat, former World Banker and finance minister, it is to signal to increasingly skeptical Western parliaments and tax payers that continued foreign aid flows are needed and that they will go into reform programmes.
The handover of security has started in a complicated geographical pattern, province by province and sometimes district(s) by district(s) or city by city (see our latest blogs on the subject here and here), and a new phase of transition is to start soon.
But let us not forget what NATO has emphasised time and again: That transition in any particular area is open-ended, with the end of 2014 as its only deadline. This means that even if, for example, the handover has started in all of Balkh, most of Herat and some of Nangarhar province, it does not have to be completed until the end of 2014. In other words: By now, not a single piece of Afghanistan has been fully handed over to the Afghan forces, and – with Western troops staying behind and participating in combat (even if not formally under a combat mandate) – the ANSF will not be left to their own devices even after 2014.
Panetta’s statement about a complete handover in the second half of 2013 misses outsomething else that has been discussed in Kabul for many months now, if not very much in public: that the US and NATO want a 12-to-15-months buffer period between the fall or end of 2013 and the end of 2014, in order to see how the ANSF perform.
When transition is completed at the end of 2014, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will disappear. But the troops won’t go away. Some will be withdrawn, but others will stay and morph from a ‘combat mission’ (although ISAF, as its name shows, is formally a ‘security assistance force’, though this ended in reality when it merged with Operation Enduring Freedom) into a ‘training-and-mentoring mission’, under a new name.
Now, White House spokesman Jay Carney has recently pointed out that despite this change of mission US soldiers will still ‘continue to participate in combat missions’. But what sounds like a contradiction becomes understandable when one looks at how ‘mentoring’ is already being done by Americans and other ISAF forces: by embedding trainers in Afghan units and accompanying them into combat. If fighting breaks out, they practically cannot stand aside – although some ISAF countries do not allow their soldiers to directly participate in fighting.
The most telling sign for an active post-2014 role for US and other forces is the ongoing negotiations over a US-Afghan strategic partnership agreement (Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador in Kabul, calls it ‘a powerful signal to the Taliban that the international community will remain committed to Afghanistan into the future’) and the discussions about an enhanced role for Special (Operations) Forces and the CIA.
According to a report in the Washington Post, ‘the CIA is expected to have a more aggressively operational role […,] to expand its collaboration with Special Operations forces [… and] could end up adding paramilitary personnel in Afghanistan as the size of the U.S. military deployment shrinks’, and, according to the Christian Science Monitor, might be ‘poised to ramp up reliance on [Afghan] paramilitaries’ like the Kandahar Strike Force, ‘cherry-picked from regular Afghan Army units and trained by US Special Operations Forces’. Such plans were soon denied by US SOP commander Admiral William McRaven (‘There are absolutely no plans right now to put special operations under [the CIA] in Afghanistan now that I am aware of’) but not too convincingly, see my emphasis in his quote. (We have discussed the possible implications of such a development in an earlier blog.)
Washington’s and NATO’s inconsistent messaging results from two facts. First, some aspects of how transition is practically implemented are simply not widely discussed for ‘operational reasons’. NATO does not want to tell the Taleban where and when exactly it happens. (Although it will not be too difficult for them to find out, given their informers in the ANSF.) Secondly, Western politicians are talking to different audiences with different expectations. While most Western electorates would prefer an earlier withdrawal, most Afghans feel rather uneasy with this perspective. As a result, giving assurances to one audience often means to unsettle the other.
Karzai, meanwhile, uses this back-and-forth in an attempt to strengthen his own position vis-à-vis the Taleban. In the context of growing anti-Western sentiment among the population, he is trying to project that he is increasingly in charge, acting independently of his main US backers and in control of a sovereign Afghanistan. It will not have gone unnoticed, however, that his demands for a garrisoning of Western troops in the wake of the civilian massacre by a US soldier was downplayed again almost as soon as it was out. ‘This is not a new demand. We have been asking foreign troops not to enter Afghan homes and villages for years,’ his spokesman said.
The presence of Western forces in Afghanistan continues to play a stabilising function in four ways. Firstly, it keeps the Taleban from overrunning important parts of the country, and secondly it holds back the warlords allied both with the West and with Karzai from dropping the gloves in their fierce competition for power and access to resources. Thirdly, but more indirectly, it provides for a continuation of financial flows, since the foreign armed forces on the ground enjoy far greater attention at home, in parliaments, the media and the public, than diplomats or aid workers. Last but not least, the Western presence is still desired by a large number of Afghans – though of course this does not mean that they are ready to tolerate the general bad behaviour of night raids and incidents such as the Quran burnings or the killings in Panjwai. On the other hand, a continuing presence of Western troops – and possibly bases – after 2014 contradicts the main demand of the Taleban for a political solution and could lead at least parts of their movement to continue their armed resistance. This is a dilemma which NATO will have to face at its forthcoming summit in Chicago in May.
Photo: Claire Truscott
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020