The recently concluded NATO summit in Lisbon was more significant for what it did not say than for what it did. The summit signaled an end to the presence of international combat forces in Afghanistan by 2014 but without indicating how the war would be brought to an end.
Leaders of 48 nations including 28 Nato members endorsed a plan to gradually hand over all security responsibilities to Afghan military and police forces by 2014 starting next spring. But the question that went unanswered was whether this transition was feasible absent a plan for a negotiated political settlement to bring the conflict to a close.
The confusion at the heart of coalition strategy was laid bare within days of the summit by the fiasco in which a phoney Taleban leader met NATO and Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai. This was reportedly arranged by British intelligence, which US officials later blamed for the embarrassment. There is always potential for blunders when such secretive contacts are pursued so clumsily and without an overall plan.
Meanwhile, the message from Lisbon was that while coalition nations were looking for the exits they still lacked a credible exit plan. Behind the carefully orchestrated pageantry loomed a key question: Did the coalition have any political strategy or were military objectives still defining the next phase of the US-led coalition’s engagement in Afghanistan?
Confusion reigned on what the 2014 timeline set at Lisbon really meant. Was this a move away from the deadline – of July 2011 – announced last year by President Barack Obama for when American troops will start pulling out from Afghanistan?
Official US spokesmen denied any pushback and played down reports that the coalition commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus opposed a faster troop drawdown. While some Nato representatives said the 2014 target date was “aspirational” and the transition would be conditions and not ?calendar-based others saw this as a time ?limit. British leaders insisted their country would end its combat role in 2015. US Vice President Joe Biden declared that 2014 was a “drop-dead date” for withdrawing all combat troops. But the Nato Secretary General said coalition forces would stay as long as necessary.
Politics dictated much of these mixed messages, which tried to address different audiences. This reflected the compulsion for Western leaders to reassure their skeptical and war weary publics that they were moving towards disengagement from an unpopular war now in its 10th year. This conflict has now also crossed another milestone – lasting longer than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
NATO’s transition plan rests on assumptions that are at best unreliable and at worst delusional. One, that Afghan security forces can be trained and readied to take over all combat responsibilities in the next four years. And two, that the insurgency can be ‘degraded’ to the point that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is able to face down Taleban forces once the western troop withdrawal nears completion.
While the accelerated expansion of the Afghan army and police is certainly underway, the professional capability of these forces remains in serious doubt. The high attrition rate, low morale and widespread illiteracy continue to mar their ability to undertake any significant military or combat mission independently of foreign forces. Also how a force lacking adequate Pashtun representation will be able to hold its own against the Taleban is open to question.
As for the surge-enabled military escalation underway under the direction of General Petraeus, it is unclear how this will prove to be a game changer given the record of the past nine years. Upbeat US military assessments which echoed at the Lisbon summit of regaining the war initiative do not square with the realities on the ground. Far from the Taleban momentum being broken, as General Petraeus has been claiming, the movement is at its strongest since 2001 and has expanded its activities beyond the traditional strongholds
Claims of military progress attained by the surge strategy seem aimed more at shaping opinion at home – ahead of the Obama Administration’s December review of war strategy – than reflecting a change in the military equation. But the more kinetic phase of the surge involving aggressive military actions including increased night raids, air strikes and use of heavily armored battle tanks, is having other effects. It is aggravating tensions between the US and President Karzai and turning the Afghan people even more against foreign forces– hardly the ingredients for a successful ‘transition’.
Washington seems intent to allow its military commanders to continue down this path even though the Obama White House long concluded – according to multiple accounts now available of its internal debates on Afghanistan – that a military victory is not possible. Avoiding the impression of defeat now seems to be the key driver of the US-led mission.
The continued reliance on a military strategy is not just delaying a meaningful search for a negotiated end to the conflict but could end up compromising the chances for one once the surge has run its course.
A viable exit plan cannot be achieved while persisting with this failed approach. For all its declarations of support for President Karzai’s policy of ‘reconciliation’ with the Taleban, the US has yet to switch operational course from a military to a political strategy of accommodation with the forces of the insurgency.
The notion of ramping up the war effort to force the Taleban to the negotiating table means pursuing elusive battlefield success without any Plan B. Rather than work towards a reduction of violence that can create a climate – and incentive – for talks, military escalation will only impede movement in that direction.
The December review offers President Obama an opportunity to chart a new course and make political accommodation the paramount element in the US strategy thereby reversing a situation in which a faltering military effort has been dictating the political approach. Latest media reports from Washington based on the usual unnamed official sources suggest that the review will only assess whether the present approach is working and “tweak policy” rather than change strategy. If this turns out to be the case it would be another squandered opportunity, whose consequences will not only be deleterious for the Western coalition but more so for a region already reeling from the blowback from America’s longest war.
Courtesy Khaleej Times