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Afghanistan Awaits London Conference Commitments

Richard Weitz

The late-January London Conference on Afghanistan, co-hosted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, President Hamid Karzai and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has many tasks, but one of the most important is to secure more durable military and economic commitments from the 43-nation coalition supporting the Afghan government. Most NATO governments frame their commitments in one- or two-year intervals, but President Karzai has argued that the Afghan government needs at least five years of sustained Western assistance to develop an Afghan military and police force capable of countering the Taliban insurgents without NATO combat support.

BACKGROUND: According to the remarkably frank briefing by a senior NATO intelligence officer in late December, the coalition troops in Afghanistan must reverse the deteriorating security situation in 2010 or the war against the Afghan Taliban insurgents could be irretrievably lost. The Afghan Taliban has already established a government in waiting. Not only have the insurgents appointed a shadow governor in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, but Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has selected ministers to administer the country if his fighters re-capture Kabul. The Taliban has also developed an elaborate system of logistics and financing that has in many localities displaced the weak Afghan government administration.

According to NATO intelligence, the insurgent movement’s annual budget amounted to US$ 100-200 million, derived from al-Qaeda and other subsidies, narcotics trafficking, and levying taxes on local Afghans. With these funds, NATO calculates that the Taliban fields 25,000 to 30,000 fighters, but perhaps half a million Afghans would assist the insurgents due to their economic sufferings or the Afghan government’s weaknesses.

During the past few months, NATO governments have committed to deploy more troops in Afghanistan than ever before in the eight-year war. There are presently 110,000 foreign troops in the country and this number should rise further in the coming months. The United States has already started sending 30,000 additional troops. While other countries have pledged 7,000 more, a close examination of this figure shows that the total includes at least 1,500 troops that were scheduled to withdraw in 2010 but will now stay through this year. In addition, NATO governments have yet to designate 1,500 of the remaining 5,500 troops. France and Germany may fill this quota, but only after the January 28 European-sponsored conference on Afghanistan. Finally, of the 4,000 firmly pledged new troops, approximately half come from non-NATO countries such as Australia, Georgia, and South Korea. All non-American troops in Afghanistan serve as part of the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whereas some U.S. soldiers remain under an independent command.

The NATO intelligence officer’s one-year timeline coincides with various statements by U.S. officials that some American troops may leave Afghanistan as early as July 2011. Other NATO governments have established similar deadlines. Even before the killing of five of its citizens on December 30, including a female civilian journalist, the Canadian government had announced plans to withdraw all its 2,800 troops by 2011. The Netherlands intends to remove its entire 2,200-person contingent this year.

The Taliban has sought to sustain, and ideally accelerate, these timelines by fighting a vicious war of attrition this year, presumably to be followed by major offensives in 2011 and beyond. Although the guerrillas still engage in firefights, employ suicide bombers, and conduct a few high-profile operations such as attacking public ceremonies and the latest Kabul attack, ambushes using improvised explosive device (IED) have become the insurgents’ weapon of choice. IED incidents have increased threefold since 2007. Foreign troops encountered 7,228 IEDs in 2009, as compared with only 81 in 2003 and 2,718 in 2007. The weight of the typical IED has also increased, with the heaviest growing to almost 1,000 kilograms, sufficient to destroy even heavily fortified vehicles that might drive nearby.

The guerrillas’ improved ability to use roadside bombs against NATO troops, along with the growing contingent of Western combat forces in Afghanistan, has resulted in a substantial growth in the number of foreign military casualties in Afghanistan in recent years. Last year, 506 international troops died in Afghanistan, as compared with 295 in 2008; 310 of the combat soldiers killed in 2009 were American. Precisely half that number, 155, died in 2008. Casualties among Afghan government troops have also risen.

The December 30 killing of seven CIA contractors also demonstrated how the surge in civilian support personnel for military operations in Afghanistan will likely increase non-combat casualties in 2010. With the endorsement of the Obama administration, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, has placed renewed emphasis on promoting economic development, improved intelligence, better governance, and other non-combat missions assigned to civilian agencies.

IMPLICATIONS: The issue of NATO burden sharing, which dominated alliance deliberations on Afghanistan during the Bush administration, was much less visible in 2009. The main reason is that the Obama national security team has essentially given up trying to secure a major influx of European troops into Afghanistan. The White House has decided that the only large source of new foreign combat troops will come from the United States. The continued drawdown in American forces from Iraq, a process begun by the Bush administration, has facilitated this process.

Although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates no longer engages in high-profile public chastising of the Europeans for their limited military support in Afghanistan, sustaining a large European security presence there is still seen as essential in Washington. The reason is less for their combat contributions — which vary considerably by national contingent, and are often degraded by various restrictions on how their forces can be used — than for their political importance in legitimizing the mission and for countering congressional criticisms about inadequate burden sharing within NATO. While there are approximately 110,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, from more than 40 countries, almost two-thirds of them are American.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is playing a pivotal role in helping to hold the alliance’s Afghan mission together. During his transatlantic travels, he has been seeking to inject European views into the current strategy debate in Washington, while interpreting U.S. perspectives to other NATO governments. For example, Rasmussen has encouraged NATO governments to focus on training Afghan security forces, stressing that, by increasing the capabilities of the Afghan army and police, they will eventually reduce the need for NATO combat troops. “We have to do more now,” he said in a speech at the Atlantic Council last September, “if we want to be able to do less later.”

Rasmussen has also sought to help NATO leaders balance between their two prime audiences. On the one hand, they must convince their domestic constituents that their national military missions in Afghanistan will end or substantially decrease soon. On the other hand, they must reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned; otherwise, they risk having people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan seeking to accommodate the Taliban, whose key strategic advantage — besides ruthlessness — is perseverance.

The Secretary-General has sought to bridge this gap by highlighting the importance of sustaining an allied commitment to develop and empower strong Afghan political, security, and other institutions that can assume burdens now being undertaken by foreigners. Rasmussen told the Atlantic Council that both allied and Afghan publics want to see “the beginning of transition to Afghan lead” in the security and other dimensions. In addition to Afghan security forces assuming larger roles, “it means Afghans running their own schools, their own hospitals, [and] their own government.” He explained that, “if we can show transition actually happening, our publics will continue to support this mission through to success.” If not, “it will be impossible to sustain public support for this mission over the long term.”

As the same time, the Secretary General has also striven to reassure Afghans that NATO troops would not abandon them prematurely. This was the main theme of the message he delivered during his visit to Kabul a few days before Christmas. In a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Rasmussen insisted that, “the international community will stand with you and help in rebuilding your country until you are ready to stand on your own, and ensure that terrorism will never take root again.” Nonetheless, he added that, while “in 2010 there will be new momentum” due to the influx of new ISAF troops and NATO’s focus on population protection and economic development, the objective is to “lay the groundwork for greater Afghan leadership in its own affairs… begin[ning] already next year.”

CONCLUSIONS: Despite these admirable efforts, Rasmussen has yet to overcome the problem of the misaligned coalition calendars. Most NATO governments are still envisaging their role in one- or two-year intervals, but President Karzai has plausibly argued that the Afghan government will need at least five years of sustained Western funding, training, and military assistance to develop an Afghan military and police force capable of countering the Taliban insurgents without NATO combat support.

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