Any Which Way You Can
With no clear roadmap for stability and withdrawal from Afghanistan, the much-hyped NATO summit failed to deliver much, apart from sending a strong signal to Pakistan to clean up its act.
The transatlantic alliance, NATO, that has been battling a decade-long insurgency in Afghanistan, met in Chicago this May. In addition to the pomp and show, the participating heads of state were greeted with hundreds of anti-war demonstrators that included US military personnel. As was expected, discussions on the security transition in Afghanistan and the troop withdrawal dominated the conference.
Three main issues were addressed at the Summit with regard to the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, through an official declaration NATO formalized its withdrawal and security transition strategy for Afghanistan. Its mission will end in 2014, with Afghan forces taking the security lead from summer 2013 and ISAF subsequently moving into an advisory and training role. Despite this announcement, both President Obama and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, offered repeated assurances that Afghanistan was not being abandoned and that the supporting role of the US and NATO will last beyond 2014. This understanding was also formalized by signing a US-Afghan strategic pact.
Differences between the US and its European allies on the pace of withdrawal became apparent when France announced that it was pulling out earlier, bringing 3500 soldiers home this year alone. Other NATO countries have already shrunk their troop sizes, indicating that after nearly 11 years, the U.S allies are ready to wind down their commitments and there is little that the U.S can do to change their positions.
The resolve on the Afghan security transition contrasted sharply with the lack of a breakthrough decision on the issue of NATO supply lines that Pakistan blocked last November, as a reaction to the ‘accidental’ killing of 24 troops on the Salala border. The primary reason that NATO had invited Pakistan to the Summit was to reach an understanding on the matter. The PPP-led government had shown some flexibility in the days prior to the meeting but alarmed the US-led coalition by asking to be paid upwards of $5000 per container, offloaded at Karachi Port and moving through Pakistani territory before entering Afghanistan through the Chaman and Torkhum border crossings.
The displeasure was made clear when President Obama refused to meet President Zardari and in his opening remarks recognized the presence of all partners except Pakistan, qualifying the statement as “all those nations who allow transit into Afghanistan.” As a Los Angeles Times headline noted, “At NATO summit, warm welcome for most leaders, but not Pakistan’s.” Even Rasmussen cancelled his meeting with Zardari at the last moment. Though the White House later released a picture showing Obama speaking with Karzai and Zardari, and both governments announced that they were moving towards an understanding, the fact remained that they had indeed failed to reach an agreement. Moreover, the Summit once again illustrated that both countries were resentful and lacked a pragmatic strategy that could secure cooperative engagement on Afghanistan without upsetting their domestic electorates.
An agreement was, however, signed between Kyrgyzstan and the US for cargo shipments. This secures NATO’s increased reliance on the Northern Distribution Network, which it uses to transport supplies into Afghanistan from Russia and Central Asia. Nevertheless, while this agreement can provide a costly short-term solution, it cannot solve the major logistical challenges NATO will face when withdrawing in 2014. And so NATO remains reliant on Pakistani cooperation.
Some attention was also accorded to discussions on Pakistan’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Prior to Zardari’s arrival, Rasmussen commented, “We can’t solve the problems in Afghanistan without the positive engagement of Pakistan.” In short, the coalition was reminding Pakistan that to ensure Afghanistan’s stability it has to remove Afghan Taliban safe havens from its territory
Despite the declarations and re-affirmations of movement toward progress, the summit was disappointing on several issues, the primary one being the failure to offer a comprehensive strategy for a responsible withdrawal. The alliance offered security transition plans without explaining what its political strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan would be. There was no explanation of how reconciliation would avoid another civil war, how a US-Taliban dialogue would be initiated, how the northern parties opposed to Karzai and the Taliban would be brought to the table to engage in meaningful dialogue or what kind of a power-sharing deal would be created? Similarly, there was no discussion on how the regional countries would be involved? Regional cooperation on Afghanistan is both a challenge and a necessity. However, there is currently no roadmap for a strategy that answers security issues and pursues mutual interests in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, on the security front, several issues remained unaddressed. There was no mention of how the war against al-Qaeda will be fought after 2014, especially inside Pakistan. Moreover, while there was much talk of strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), it is not clear who exactly will pay for their training and maintenance, which is expected to cost $4.1 billion annually. How will the US and Europe fund this project, and for how long? With Europe’s economic woes, pledges have already been hard to come by and a cost-cutting U.S. Congress may not want to sustain this project for much longer.
Finally, with Obama conceding that the Taliban was a strong enemy and gains in Afghanistan remained fragile, NATO Commander, General John Allen added that he “fully expected combat to continue beyond 2013.” With the progress on talks with the Taliban appearing unlikely before the U.S. elections, it is clear that the ANSF will be responsible for fighting the insurgency from next year onwards. What is less clear is whether the ANSF is capable of battling the insurgents.
Ultimately the Chicago summit did not deliver much. The security transition and withdrawal announcement was important because it formalized an existing understanding. However, it proved little because it offered no policy to deal with the political problems of the conflict, which is a bigger concern since a political settlement and not victory on the battlefield can only bring peace to Afghanistan.
NATO also failed to reach a deal with Pakistan on the issue of supply routes. With the NATO mandate ending in just over two years, uncertainty and the absence of long-term thinking continue to define attitudes towards Afghanistan. If the US-led coalition is truly interested in stabilizing Afghanistan, then it must work with the Afghan government to formulate a robust national reconciliation program that brings together various hostile groups and should engage regional countries to develop a strategy for multilateral cooperation. Without these efforts and a long-term commitment to helping Afghanistan reform and develop, stability will be scarcely more than a wish.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Founder of the Council on Strategic and International Affairs.
This article was published by South Asian Global Affairs, June 2012. Read it here.