After a Week of Bad News, NATO Talks Endgame in Afghanistan

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

U.S. Army soldiers from 4-73 Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division run for cover as they are fired upon by Taliban fighters during a mission in Zhary district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan April 17, 2012.

The shadow of American misdeeds fell over a NATO summit of defense and foreign ministers in Brussels. A visibly irritated Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta apologized for the acts of U.S. soldiers who posed in front of the corpses of slain Taliban fighters, pictures of which were published by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. Panetta “strongly condemned” the soldiers’ behavior, saying it “violates our regulations and more importantly our core values.” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also condemned the photos and the acts depicted, insisting they didn’t represent NATO’s “principles.” In a year where such revelations have sparked protests and violence in Afghanistan, Rasmussen made this lament: “I hope there will be no spillover.”

That’s hardly the confidence-boosting sound byte NATO wanted to air, especially at the current conclave in Brussels—where NATO has set about putting a brave face over the longstanding headache of Afghanistan, the venerable alliance’s most important mission. A train of bad news has snaked through the past few weeks: from U.S. Sgt. Robert Bales’ grisly slaughter of Afghan civilians to Sunday’s 18-hour Taliban assault on Kabul to Wednesday’s announcement by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that she would withdraw her nation’s troops — the largest non-NATO member force in Afghanistan — by mid-2013. Speaking to the press, NATO officials and leading diplomats were forced to fight fires even while extolling the progress the alliance and its allies have made in bringing stability to Afghanistan.

(MORE: The Taliban Offensive: NATO and Karzai Clash Over Messaging)

“The big picture is clear,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also in attendance. “The transition is on track, the Afghans are increasingly standing up for their own security and future, and NATO remains united in our support.” NATO officials insisted the Australian withdrawal was not a wrinkle in the plan, but rather part of the alliance’s slow, but steady handover of control to local Afghan forces. Says one official — almost all NATO civil servants are mandated to speak on condition of anonymity —“What’s happening is happening carefully, it’s not going to be sudden or uncoordinated. The Australian P.M.’s move is consistent with that reality.” (There may be a much greater disturbance in the force if French presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande wins an upcoming election and makes good on his promise to withdraw France’s troops by the end of this year.)

On the subject of Afghanistan at NATO headquarters, few conversations with officials and diplomats take place without the use of catchphrases like “the transition” or the “evolution of the mission” or the “Lisbon process” — a reference to the 2010 NATO meeting where the alliance agreed on a roadmap out of Afghanistan. What’s happening, though, is indeed as clear as Clinton says. A host of Western nations with war-weary publics — including the U.S. — are trying to extricate themselves as fast as possible from a bloody and expensive decade-long conflict. Much of the meetings in Brussels this week ahead of a pivotal NATO summit in Chicago in May will firm up the Afghanistan endgame, which ultimately involves NATO and its allies crafting a scheme to continue supporting the Afghan government and its military beyond the stated withdrawal year of 2014.

(MORE: More Than One Way to Win?)

NATO’s “insurance policy” for Afghanistan will lead to a sustained commitment of over $4 billion a year for a decade after 2014 to maintain the Afghan security forces; the U.S. will provide a bit more than half the necessary funds. NATO is “surging” the Afghan military to a total of 352,000 personnel by year’s end. But disagreements are already looming over the expected drawdown of this inflated force to a less costly 230,000 or so in the years following the withdrawal of coalition troops. NATO officials and other diplomats preach that Afghan troops have taken “the lead” in almost half the country, and 50% of the population now lives under direct protection by their own countrymen. “Insurgencies are best and ultimately defeated not by foreign troops but indigenous security forces,” says Panetta. “When Afghans do their job, we are doing our job.”

Yet, as Afghan journalists attending the NATO meetings noted, if the Afghans can’t defeat the Taliban with the backing of over 100,000 foreign troops now, what are the odds of success after NATO and its ISAF allies withdraw? The military alliance is not in the business of political dialogue — talking with the Taliban, say officials, is the job of the Afghans themselves, facilitated by the U.S. On Thursday, Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary General, admitted that the alliance’s efforts to curb the insurgency were stymied by the prevalence of Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan, a country that NATO as an institution has little means to pressure.

Still, a senior NATO official with close knowledge of events in Afghanistan spoke to TIME of a “fair-weather scenario” where the Taliban come in from the cold. “We know there are quite a few senior Taliban commanders who want to know what the endgame is,” says the official. “We haven’t reached a critical mass, but we’ve made it clear to them that there is a route of peace with honor”—provided they renounce links to terrorist groups, lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution, which preserves free speech and women’s rights.

He went on, emphasizing the growing strength of Kabul’s military: “The Taliban are deluding themselves on a very important point. They are not going to be able to return to Kandahar [after 2014] in their Toyota hiluxes. And there aren’t going to be those foreigners to fight and [use as recruitment propaganda].” With national elections taking place even as early as next year, says the official, the Taliban may not be able to exploit disaffection with current Afghan President Hamid Karzai either. Rasmussen echoed this confidence: “My message to the enemies of Afghanistan is clear—You can’t just wait us out.”

Don’t be surprised, though, if the “enemies of Afghanistan” stick around and try to call NATO on its bluff.

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