Afghans to Take Over Security Next Year, NATO Agrees
Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Barack Obama, first row, left of center, with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general, center, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center right, and other leaders at the end of the NATO summit in Chicago on Monday.
Published: May 21, 2012
CHICAGO — President Obama and leaders of America’s NATO allies on Monday agreed to end their lead role in the decade-long war inAfghanistan next summer, saying it is time for the Afghan people to take responsibility for their own security and for the American-led international troops to go home.
Hina Rabbani Khar, the Pakistani foreign minister, left, with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai at the NATO Summit in Chicago, on Monday.
Declaring that “our forces broke the Taliban’s momentum,” Mr. Obama used the summit meeting of NATO leaders here in his hometown to begin an exit from a conflict he initially embraced during his campaign for president as America’s good war.
But at a news conference, Mr. Obama conceded that “real challenges” remain in dealing with the problems across the border in Pakistan, and that the conference had not resolved the impasse over reopening supply lines or the other tensions about the fight against insurgents operating from safe havens there.
“We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan,” he said. “Neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues.”
So deep are the differences that Mr. Obama exchanged only a few words with Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari — “very brief, as we were walking into the summit,” he noted.
The plans to withdraw are “irreversible,” Mr. Obama and the world leaders said pointedly in their communiqué, a deliberate word choice that underscored the political reality in America and in Europe: after 10 years of war and with the global economy reeling, the nations of the West no longer want to continue to pay, either in treasure or in lives, the costs of their efforts in a place that, for centuries, has resisted foreign attempts to tame it.
Mr. Obama and his fellow leaders said that they were not abandoning Afghanistan. “ISAF’s mission will be concluded by the end of 2014,” they declared in their formal statement, using the acronym for the coalition of NATO forces in Afghanistan. “But thereafter Afghanistan will not stand alone; we affirm our close partnership will continue beyond the end of the transition period.”
That transition period begins now. Afghan national security forces will soon be in the lead role keeping the peace for around 75 percent of the population, NATO and Afghan officials said. But significantly, Afghan forces are not in the lead in many heavily contested areas in the south and the east of the country, where Taliban and Pakistan-based insurgents continue to engage NATO troops in day-by-day battles for control.
By next summer, the Afghan forces will have to assume those lead roles even in the heavily contested areas, according to the “irreversible” transition plan announced by the NATO leaders.
“Transition means the people of Afghanistan increasingly see their own Army and police in their towns and villages providing their security,” NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Sunday. “This is an important sign of progress toward our shared goal: an Afghanistan governed and secured by Afghans for Afghans.”
How that will actually come to pass remains to be seen; American military officials, as recently as Sunday, said they fully expected that American troops would continue fighting after next summer. In fact, the American presence in Afghanistan will continue even after 2014. The strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan calls for a residual troop presence after 2014 to act in an advisory role.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban released their own statement on the NATO conference, according to the intelligence monitoring service SITE. The Taliban commended President François Hollande of France for saying he would bring French troops home early, adding that “the mujahedeen of the Islamic emirate will keep proceeding with their ongoing jihad until it attains its goal.”
For Mr. Obama, the NATO agreement is a turning point in what has been an evolving position on how to manage America’s longest war. Mr. Obama staked his own campaign for president in part on his opposition to the war in Iraq; the war in Afghanistan, by contrast, was the one he said needed American troops and attention. But in so doing, Mr. Obama forever tied his own legacy to Afghanistan at a time when Americans and his NATO allies were suffering from combat fatigue.
NATO says it will cost about $4.1 billion a year to finance the Afghan forces. Officials at the summit meeting were looking for ways to come up with the money; it is expected that the United States and other donor countries will finance the training and support.
While officials at the summit meeting sought to highlight the progress made by Afghan forces, especially the Army, in the past two years, many conceded privately that the shift still represented a significant gamble on Afghanistan’s future stability. It is far from certain that the Afghans can hold areas that coalition troops have wrestled from the Taliban in recent years, even with close support from Western allies.
The Afghan Army has become a more effective fighting force and less of a threat to its own people — there are far fewer reports these days of soldiers getting high on patrol, for instance. But the force still remains “a work in progress,” according to an American official.
The ranks of the police, meanwhile, are filled with drug users, thieves and “shakedown artists,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he works with the Afghans. If the hand-over strategy is going to work, “it’s going to be on” the Afghan Army, who are going to need a lot of hands-on American support well past the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014, the official said.
American field commanders say they are already pushing Afghan forces to the forefront. Their reasoning: Better to have the Afghans make mistakes while American forces are still thick on the ground rather than a year from now, when there may not be enough backup for the Afghans to recover from battlefield stumbles.
Gen. James L. Huggins of the Army, the top coalition commander in southern Afghanistan, said in an interview that he was telling his Afghan counterparts: “If you will step forward now, we’ll help back you up. You may learn what you don’t know and stumble somewhere, but it won’t be a catastrophic failure, because we have your back.”
The Afghan Army is going to require support for years to come — it lacks almost all the support functions needed to fight the war. Many of its units depend on the coalition units they live alongside for everything from fuel to clean drinking water. Only recently have American commanders at small outposts scattered across Afghanistan begun refusing to supply their Afghan comrades in arms, insisting that they get their own supplies, in an effort to break the dependence ahead of the coming drawdown.
Nor do the Afghans have any capacity to handle medical evacuations from the battlefield. Few Afghan troops are trained to handle explosive ordnance disposal, a crucial role in a fight dominated by hidden bombs, and even basic communication between Afghan infantry companies and their battalion and brigade headquarters is still routed through coalition forces on the ground.
Despite those obvious shortcomings, coalition officials have over the past three years increasingly labeled operations as “Afghan-led,” and in the coming months Afghan forces will be technically responsible for security in 75 percent of Afghanistan.
But in many of those areas, coalition commanders make many of the most crucial decisions. Operations are often led by Afghans whose hands are being held by their coalition counterparts.
Consider a recent operation to clear the Taliban from a village in Zhari district, outside the southern city of Kandahar, that was billed as Afghan-led. The infantry force that cleared the village was split evenly between Afghan and American forces. But every other unit that took part in the operation — mine clearers, communications, surveillance and others — were American.
The rehearsal drills for the operations were organized by American officers, who did most of the talking during the meetings. The Afghans watched and listened — but many, including the most senior officers in the room, also readily took cigarette breaks as the meeting continued without them.
The operations nonetheless went off without a hitch, said American and Afghan officers involved.
- Supply Lines Cast Shadow at NATO Meeting on Afghan War – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- 2 more charged in foiled plot as NATO leaders meet – CNN.com (mbcalyn.com)
- At NATO summit, warm welcome for most leaders, but not Pakistan’s – chicagotribune.com (mbcalyn.com)
- NATO Formally Agrees to Transition on Afghan Security (nytimes.com)
- Obama: Confident Afghans can take security lead (washingtontimes.com)
- NATO Summit News Roundup (atwar.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Exclusive interview Afghan President Hamid Karzai (security.blogs.cnn.com)
- Obama, NATO Work to Bring Troops Home from Afghanistan (chicagotalks.org)
- NATO agrees to hand Afghans security lead by mid-2013 (timesofmalta.com)
- Obama: ‘There Will Be Great Challenges Ahead’ In Afghanistan (washington.cbslocal.com)