BOSTON and KABUL, Afghanistan — Now it’s official: NATO will end its combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014, handing over full sovereignty and security responsibility to Afghan forces. Or not.
The Lisbon summit, which sought to form a new strategy for NATO in the 21st century, forge a new and more cooperative relationship with Russia, and, along the way, work out a plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan, ended with very few concrete decisions on the table.
Instead, especially on Afghanistan, it was more an affirmation of the vague platitudes that have sounded throughout the nine years since the U.S.-led intervention sent the Taliban running and began a new chapter in Afghanistan’s chaotic history.
“Here in Lisbon, we have launched the process by which the Afghan people will once again become masters in their own house,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, announcing the conference’s decision on the second day of the summit.
Fine words, but unlikely to prove a game-changer in a war that is steadily losing popularity both within Afghanistan and among the 47 nations that make up the NATO-led International Security and Assistance mission to Afghanistan (ISAF).
In London, thousands marched against the war Saturday, calling for British troops to come home now.
Not so long ago July, 2011 loomed as the line in the sand – the date when, according to President Barack Obama, U.S. troops would being to withdraw from Afghanistan. Now the date for “completion of the transition” has been set for the end of 2014.
But even that timetable is subject to change; Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morell has already deemed 2014 an “aspirational” goal more than a firm deadline.
So there is little clarity on what, if anything, was actually achieved in Lisbon, aside from erasing the memory of Obama’s earlier target.
“We must be guided by realities, not schedules ... There are no short cuts to peace,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.
The summit seemed designed mainly to provide an illusion of consensus at a moment when the Obama administration badly needs to marshal support.
“The primary purposes of the NATO summit was to allow the alliance to retain the appearance of life,” said Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies department at King’s College London. Lieven, a widely renowned expert on the AfPak region, has a new book, “Pakistan, A Hard Country” to be published in April.
“It is also supposed to give the appearance of an agreement on Afghanistan, and to back up the Obama administration,” added Lieven. “Obama needs to show that the United States is not being left alone in Afghanistan.”
Obama’s announcement of the July 2011 goal for the start of a drawdown sent shock waves throughout Afghanistan last December.
The date, seen as a sop to the war-weary Democratic Party, was derided by all sides: the U.S. military deemed it as unrealistic on the one hand, and on the other, claimed that it gave support to the enemy. The Taliban, they said, would just play a waiting game, knowing that the international forces would soon be going home.
Afghans, for their part, felt that Obama’s declaration signaled a waning commitment to their future — a sentiment that wreaked havoc with the hearts and minds campaign that was at the center of the military’s counter-insurgency strategy (COIN), which was the watchword at the time.
“Any talk of foreign forces leaving Afghanistan in the near future revives memories of 1989, when the international community turned its back on the country,” said Janan Mosazai, a political analyst based in Kabul. He was speaking of the cutoff of international assistance that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, after nine years of bloody conflict.
“That paved the way for civil war and the emergence of the Taliban,” added Mosazai. “The United States and NATO have to recognize the psychological fear this kind of talk engenders, and make a statement of long-term support.”
But while all sides are profuse with assurances, there is little in the way of actual commitment.
“The truth is that most NATO countries are not doing much to help the United States in Afghanistan,” said Lieven.
His evaluation was echoed by Haroon Mir, head of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.
“In my view, the U.S. military will have to continue this war alone, since the military roles of the other NATO countries are quite limited,” he said. “But for the United States, the Lisbon summit is quite important politically; they do not want to be seen as the enemy of Islam, so they would like other NATO countries, including Turkey, to play a bigger role.”
While most analysts agree that 2014 is a lot more realistic for a handover than 2011, there are still numerous problems even with that seemingly distant date.
Transition to full Afghan control will depend largely on the ability of the Afghan security forces to step up and assume full responsibility for protecting their country. More emphasis is now being placed on training for the Afghan National Army and Police, but it may be too little, too late, according to many experts.
Russian ambassador to Kabul Andrei Avetisyan pointed out in an earlier interview that it would take at least five years to show results, even if NATO were to ramp up their training practices. He also said that the NATO strategy of attempting to control the population centers may not work out any better for the alliance than it did for the Soviets.
“The NATO approach now reminds me of a version of the old Soviet strategy,” he said. “They are building up the army and trying to hold the center. COIN is dead.”
But NATO and the United States had lessons to learn from the Soviets, he insisted. The all or nothing, with-us-or-against-us approach is just not working.
“The United States’ military strategy in Afghanistan is deeply flawed,” he said. “In general, they understand Afghanistan much less well than the Soviets. They are even more arrogant. Their approach is kill and capture, or require absolute submission… But Afghanistan is not a place of clear battle lines. We cannot seem to get our minds around the full pragmatism of the ordinary Afghan.”
In many parts of the country, Lieven pointed out, families keep one son in the Taliban and another in the army or police. Depending on which way the battle goes, they will choose their side.
In addition, the deck has been stacked against the NATO forces from the very beginning, he added. Once the Soviets withdrew, the army they had supported was able to withstand the onslaught of the mujaheddin for three years. In fact, they only fell after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving them short of money and supplies.
“We should keep in mind that the Afghan Army the Soviets were working with was the old Royal Army,” he said. “They were dominated by Pashtuns. Our army is the old Northern Alliance, which has relatively few Pashtuns. This will making fighting or negotiating that much harder.”
The Taliban movement is largely made up of Pashtuns.
So despite the military successes the U.S. military is claiming in the south, there is a very long way to go before real progress is seen in Afghanistan.
That road may be made even longer due to tensions between the Afghan government and its international backers.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently told The Washington Post that he would like to see the foreign forces adopt a lighter footprint in the country, to cease their search-and-destroy night raids, keep off the roads, and, in short, to stop doing things that annoy Afghans.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was reportedly furious at the remarks, which, he said in an interview with several media outlets, could make his position “untenable.”
It will likely be Petraeus’ position, rather than Karzai’s that holds sway. Karzai cannot even pretend to be in control of his country at the present time, since his budget and is security come from the international community.
One insider in Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate said that all decisions were made in Washington.
“We are just robots here,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Afghans have a hair-trigger sense of dignity and respect, something that could further hamper U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
“The United States is saying that we are building up the Afghan state, but then they treat that state with absolute contempt,” said Lieven. “It is farcical.”
The real importance of Lisbon was less in the area of real achievements than in the public relations sphere.
“If NATO, the most powerful military organization in the world, cannot defeat 30,00 to 40,000 Taliban, then they will never be able to justify their defeat,” said Haroon Mir. “The Lisbon summit is vital to NATO’s reputation.”
Kabul-based journalists Jamaluddin Temori and Abaceen Nasimi contributed to this report.