The spin from Chicago is working. Many media reported that the war in Afghanistan will be over and Western troops gone by 2014. Apparently, they did not get President Obama’s full message that was much more subtle: that the war ‘as we know it’ will be over. It will change its character and the new NATO mission will be smaller and less visible while western governments hope that less visibility will get the war in Afghanistan off the front pages. But don’t be fooled, says Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, there is no full NATO withdrawal and war will not be over just because you do not read about it anymore.
When President Barack Obama stated at last weekend’s NATO summit in his hometown Chicago that the Afghan war ‘as we know it’ will be over in two years, some media only got half of it. And they are spreading a truncated message in their headlines that will stick in readers’ minds: War will be over then. ‘The countdown to Afghanistan withdrawal begins’says ITV News; USA Today sees the Afghanistan war heading to a ‘messy ending’, but an ending, nevertheless. Deutsche Welle, the foreign office-financed, official German broadcaster for the world even titles, completely ignoring reality: ‘NATO to quit Afghanistan in 2014’. Moreover, they already start discussing the logistics of what in fact is only a partial withdrawal, or ‘drawdown’, as if there were no more pressing issues: through Pakistan? through Uzbekistan? ‘Pakistan wants USD 5,000 per container!’
Unfortunately for Afghans, the AFP called them the ‘NATO summit’s forgotten people’ very properly, the stress in Obama statement is on ‘as we know it’, not on ‘over’. Neither will war be over around Christmas 2014 nor will the last Western troops have left Afghanistan by then.
Yes, a lot will change in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. ISAF with its logo ‘kumak wa/au hamkari’ will disappear from what the military calls the Afghan ‘theatre’. (‘Arena’ would be more to the point). Most combat troops will be withdrawn indeed. Afghan forces, and the Afghan government, will be in the lead and responsible, which is not a bad thing, as long as they hold together.
But NATO won’t leave. There will be another NATO mission, starting in 2015, under a training-and-mentoring label, as in Iraq. President Hamed Karzai called it a ‘training, advising and assistance mission’ in his Chicago speech. It probably will not be really small, either. Media reports from the Chicago summit were talking about somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 soldiers, trainers, mentors and other soldiers to protect them.(1)
Additionally, the new NATO mission will be accompanied by another one composed of US and other countries’ Special Operations Forces (SOF)(2) and even more special CIA operators (see earlier reporting about this here and here). US media reports expect something in the range of 6,000 SOF and ‘other agencies’ staff. They will continue to focus on what the US government and military see as their most effective means against the insurgents, night raids and kill-and-capture operations, even after they now need the approval of the Afghan government. That the US seems to attempt to keep control over high-value prisoners at Bagram (possibly including those snatched in future operations) – see our latest blog about this issue – fits into this picture.
Furthermore, the special forces will continue to work with militia-like Afghan forces like the Afghan Local Police (ALP) which they are already mentoring currently (here a British example). This Afghan paramilitary force is used as a stopgap solution in areas with strong Taleban influence and a low presence of regular Afghan forces. It is supposed to be decommissioned by 2014. But who knows, given the experience with Afghan militias created as far back as in the 1980s and still alive and kicking.
The recent report of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has shown a number of other serious problems in this SOF-ALP partnership approach: the watered-down recruitment practice that allows ‘local strongmen’ to take over ALP units to ‘settle old scores’, the fig-leaf local shuras who are supposed to vet ALP recruits, the influx of members of illegal armed groups, including former Taleban and Hezb-e Islami fighters which was ruled out initially and examples of US forces creating their ‘own’ ALP units; officially ALP is under the Afghan interior ministry. (Read more details in our earlier blog here).
Another problem is that both the SOF and the ALP often operate outside the Afghan law or with impunity, with some ALP units, as the Los Angeles Times put it, ‘tangled in criminal activity’.
Officially, the SOF part is still under discussion and it is not clear whether they will become part of the new NATO mission. But probably not; this resembles the situation in the past few years where it has been left open whether Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the part of the US military in Afghanistan not under the multilateral ISAF force, was still operating independently or whether it had been fully integrated into ISAF.
All in all, the partial NATO withdrawal by the end of 2014 is more a change of shape of the NATO mission. It further increases the role of those forces whose preferred methods of operation have, despite all ‘effectiveness’, contributed to an escalation of fighting and to a polarisation that makes it extremely difficult for civilians who want stay away from either side to do so and for third political forces to grow.
The new mission will be smaller and less visible. The war as we know it, will morph from a counterinsurgency/counter-terrorism war (the experts are even undecided about what of both) that is still based on conventional forces mainly, at least when it comes to quantity, to a ‘special operations’ war.
As it has been attempted in Iraq, this is supposed to get Afghanistan off the front pages and out of voters’ minds, whose support has been ‘tumbling to all-time lows’ even in the US, as The Hill blog from Washington DC put it. With a smaller and less visible mission, there will be less embedded reporting and less media-accompanied trips of politicians and, given the low number of permanent correspondents on the ground, less reporting at all about Afghanistan. At the same time, Afghan journalists ring the alarm bell that western funding for them is drying out and threatens to close one of the last channels through which information on the country still could get through.
In Iraq, by the way, war is not over. The sectarian rift is widening and there are regular bomb attacks, as we knew them. And although US soldiers are not directly involved anymore after the Iraqi government demanded a complete withdrawal, there are still thousands of US military personnel and military contractors on the ground and the US Embassy in Baghdad has 17,000 staff, including ‘a private army’ of 5,000 security contractors who ‘carry assault weapons and fly armed helicopters’. There are always ways around a full withdrawal.(3)
(1) This is according to German TV (ARD), see the video here. The reporter quotes ‘military observers here in Chicago’ and speaks of ’10,000-40,000 employees of the alliance’, possibly indicating contractors, as in Iraq, too.
(2) The UK already has promised ‘up to 200’ of such forces for after 2014, and Lithuania has stated that its special forces will stay. Australia, Canada and France for example, are ‘leaving open’ a continuing role for their special forces.
(3) The International Herald Tribune gave another interesting example recently, from the Philippines, a country that had rejected permanent US bases in 1991. The paper quoted a Philippine military officer testifying in 2009 in the country’s senate that the US military had built ‘permanent structures’ in the southern Philippines insurgency area that are ‘off-limits to the Philippine military’ (‘Bases are gone but U.S. presence is felt in Philippines’, IHT, 30 April-1 May 2012, p. 1). This is an option to watch when US-Afghan negotiations about a status-of-forces agreement commence.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020