May 23, 2012

NATO Dresses Stalemate As "Responsible End" In Afghanistan

NATO's war pageant in Chicago has run its course with few surprises. President Asif Zardari arrived in time for the ceremony, as if he would allow Pakistan to be defenselessly singled out from a high-profile event on American soil. President Francois Hollande's decision to withdraw French combat troops by the end of 2012 was neutralized by choreographed meetings with U.S. President Barak Obama.

"There will be no rush for the exits," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."

After dispensing with the established narrative that NATO forces have routed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and reversed the Taliban's momentum, Western leaders got down to the real business at hand: getting out of the country. The Obama administration has labored to sell both sides of its exit strategy to an unconvinced American public, seeking a perceptive balance between near-term withdrawal and a long-term security commitment. According to an insider account from The New York Times' David Sanger, Secretaries Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton first advised Obama to bring his surge of 33,000 troops home in September 2012 to exploit America's election cycle. This move would allow him to sell a 2014 withdrawal time-line, frequently criticized by the GOP, while leaving 60,000+ troops to fight through two more summers.

Obama veiled the future of U.S. policy during his brief visit to Bagram Air Base, saying that American troops won't fight past 2014 and that no "permanent bases" will be constructed. Left for another day were a substantial number of Special Forces and temporary bases, to be transferred to the Afghan government at a later date. Chicago has since filled in some gaps; with the percentage of Afghans living under government authority scheduled to rise from the mid-60s to 100%, all combat operations led by American forces will cease in the summer of 2013 and NATO-ISAF's combat mission will end on December 31st, 2014. NATO also got a head start on shaping the perceptions of Afghanistan's next election, which officials promise to be fairer than Karzai's previous (NATO-backed) victory.

The two presidents said they reached a "vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues."

Ultimately, though, Obama would only say of his Iraqi mulligan, "We also agreed on what NATO’s relationship with Afghanistan will look like after 2014. NATO will continue to train, advise and assist, and support Afghan forces as they grow stronger." Various media estimates of Special Forces, which possess the abilities to train and fight ("assist and support"), range between 3,000 and 10,000 personnel. The White House will presumably release the real figure at a later date, but Obama is visibly selling half-truths to minimize the war during election season and beyond. By using temporary bases to support a robust network of Special Forces and U.S. air power, Americans can move onto the next war (and their economy, Obama frequently reminds them) as Afghanistan's continues.

The idea of U.S. forces disengaging completely from the Taliban after 2014 seems impossible. Attempting at least some level of spin control, Obama ended his NATO address by cautioning, "the Taliban is still a robust enemy... and the gains are still fragile." Thus the White House and Pentagon have flipped this point its head, explicitly alerting their multinational audience that, "there is a narrative out there that combat operations for the U.S. stops at Milestone 2013. That is not in fact correct."

"I don't want to, again, understate the challenge that we have ahead of us," commanding General John Allen said during a pre-summit briefing. "The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent in the battle space. There's no end of combat before the end of 2014. And in fact the Taliban will oppose the ANSF after 2014."

Instead, combat involving U.S. troops and Taliban guerrillas will stop at an unknown point after 2014. On the battlefield, Taliban commanders await the exit of NATO troops before making serious attempts to retake lost territory in the south. Allen acknowledged this reality by explaining, "the Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and so we have planned for that." He even went so far as to tell reporters that Washington has set aside "available forces" in case the Taliban does surge its presence into NATO's vacuum, a scenario that could kick in at any time.

Pakistan's border havens also remain operational, a major point of contention within the Pentagon and between Islamabad.

Meanwhile the outlook of a political resolution remains dim, with neither side prepared to compromise its core goals. The Obama administration has been particularly disingenuous about this dilemma, arguing that "political reconciliation is essential to the country's future security." However negotiations with the Taliban's leadership have yet to materialize into a sincere option. Reading from a script that is designed to absolve responsibility, U.S. and NATO officials would only tell reporters that the Taliban chose to suspend preliminary talks in March. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid countered by accusing Washington of "utilizing a one step forward, two steps backwards tactic" to "prolong the occupation of Afghanistan."

Whether he can be trusted is unknown, but Mujahid addressed one critical point when he "declared that it [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] holds no agenda of harming anyone nor will it let anyone harm other countries from the soil of Afghanistan." More concrete is the Taliban's rejection of foreign soldiers and military bases, which the insurgency cannot be seen accepting now or after 2014. Although the Taliban's leadership appears to concede the necessity of reconciliation, if only to expel foreign troops, political and military commanders believe that Washington's limited outreach is intended to splinter their movement. The Obama administration is essentially demanding an unconditional surrender and preparing to continue fighting past 2014 if the Taliban doesn't comply.

Rasmussen similarly told reporters, “If these conditions are fulfilled, why not give it a try. But my point is the best way to facilitate a political process is to keep up the military pressure so that Taliban realizes that they have no chance whatsoever to win militarily.”

This Pentagon-authored talking point sidesteps the fundamental problem that NATO is equally unable to produce a strategic military victory. The 350,000-strong Afghan army will be able to secure most of their country, but the insurgency can adapt to and potentially thrive in this environment. The Taliban will certainly escalate its operations to infiltrate the ANA and, with its other hand, attack weaker government units. Civil strife between Tajiks, who compose the majority of Afghanistan's security forces (including those in the south), and Pashtuns presents a separate dilemma. Many political and economic issues that affect the lives of millions of Afghans remain outstanding while their neighbors wrestle over the conflict's end game.

The American, NATO, Afghan and Pakistani peoples must realize that the war will drag on longer than any number thrown at them by their leaders. NATO's collective force wants out as soon as militarily possible, but the alliance - largely American and British beyond 2014 - will be forced to fight beyond its scheduled time-lines in order to capsize the insurgency.


  1. Excellent.
    IMO If/When the fighting continues after 2014 it will be declared a civil war.
    They are all leaving each other many loopholes for any elephant to jump through.
    Now would be the time to see how many troops are in Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, UAE, KSA, etc.
    More importantly is are they building more bases and or barracks in the region.

    IMO they have gone as far as they could in Iraq, and Afghanistan. Even Iran might be a stretch for them now.
    New focus will be on Africa.

  2. General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says, "Afghanistan is an important country in an important region."

    That's what I don't get. Afghanistan is not Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan's only nominal importance was lost once Osama bin Laden was found. It's abundantly clear that what ever fixes Afghanistan ultimately, is not affordable for the USA to provide. I say cashier the General, repatriate our troops, and start try paying to heal our WIA's. And do it yesterday.

  3. Afghanistan is strategically placed so U.S. attention is warranted - the right kind of attention is the problem. I expect the war's extension to cause all sorts of defined and undefined problems, but I don't want to see U.S. policy in Afghanistan reduced to Iraq's feeble state either.

    Africa is "next" - this term should be used extra loosely, considering an established history of terrorism/jihadism - because it's easier for both the US and AQ to infiltrate. Going to be a long arc in the "War on Terror," which goes on and on and on...