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NATO, the American General and “transition” in Afghanistan

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In recent days the ISAF Commander, General David Petraeus, has explained his view on how the counter-insurgency campaign is proceeding in Afghanistan, and what the prospects are for the NATO-led mission in the near future.

The key point is referred to as Inteqal, which in Dari and Pashto means “transition” or the gradual handover of security leadership from ISAF to Afghan authorities. This will begin in upcoming months and continue until 2014. Such an increase in Afghan leadership will regard all the government’s functions. Several observers consider Integal a politically-correct term used to soften the rude reality of a NATO exit from Afghanistan. This may be the case, or it may not. However one thing is sure, the strategy repeatedly outlined by Petraeus and currently implemented by ISAF is much more than a simple plan to withdraw NATO forces.

First, ISAF and the Afghan government are working to create the conditions to initiate the Integal, particularly in those districts where the insurgency is weakest. The transition process will be based on conditions on the ground, including a number of criteria regarding  the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the ability of the Afghan government to exert its authority and manage public administration at the local level, political factors and economic development related to the specific districts. Second, the decision to initiate a transition in a particular district will be decided jointly by the Afghan government and ISAF, through the Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board (JANIB). Also the implementation process will be conditions-based, which means its pace will depend upon its progress. Third, as the combat responsibilities of ANSF increase and those of ISAF decrease, the NATO troops made available by a transition in a certain area will be utilized for training tasks and/or redeployed in the near districts rather than be withdrawn: in that sense, “transition dividends” will be reinvested in Afghanistan.

A fundamental pre-requisite for the “transition” is the growth in quantity and quality of ANSF – both the army and the police. Major NATO efforts in that sense began only in recent years, with the establishment in November 2009 of the NATO Training Mission which aimed to include and upgrade national training missions, as well as to cooperate with those of the EU and the European Gendarmerie. The size of the Afghan National Army increased from 97,000 soldiers in November 2009 to 138,200 in September 2010, while in the same period the police force grew from 95,000 policemen to 120,500. Although the quantity indicators demonstrate clear progress, the quality of ANSF remains a problem: the army’s twenty brigades still need, to various degrees, support and cooperation by ISAF to carry out military operations; the retention of recruits is insufficient due to both economic and cultural reasons; key components such as logistics, intelligence and military police are still absent in the army; the Afghan Air Force remains  embryonic, although both the fleet and manning have increased in the last years. The nature and pace of ANSF progress (both quantitative and qualitative) in 2011 will be among the crucial conditions for the transition process. This is the reason Petraeus openly attaches great importance to NATO efforts in that field.

In contrast, during his last interview the ISAF Commander did not mention the issue of eventual peace talks with the Taliban commanders. Rather, Petraeus focused on the reintegration of individuals or groups of insurgents which at local level agree to stop fighting in exchange for being relocated to another area and receiving a house, food, some cash, and job training. To this end, Petraeus has decided to utilize 50 million dollars made immediately available to ISAF commanders by the US to support these reintegration activities, while waiting for a structured financing mechanism which the Afghan government and UNDP are putting in place. 

If these are the three main pillars of the ISAF strategy – along with the protection of Afghan civilians and cooperation with the Pakistan military –  does this strategy have any chance of succeeding? There are signs that transition is neither easy nor impossible, rather it is simply possible. The responsibility for security in the Kabul province, where 20% of the Afghan population lives and where national institutions and international organizations are located, was taken over in August 2008 by Afghan authorities with ISAF support. As a result, in the last two and a half years, insurgency attacks in Kabul have not been stopped but the city’s security has not been dramatically reduced.

Another crucial question is whether the US and NATO will remain committed to this strategy. In December 2009, the Obama administration agreed to a military and civilian surge aimed at fighting the Taliban, protecting Afghan civilians and building up the Afghan security forces, as requested by Petraeus and the ISAF Commander at that time, General Stanley McChrystal. But Obama explicitly linked this surge to a date, July 2011, when the US will begin a gradual withdrawal of American armed forces from Afghanistan. This compromise contains a contradiction, as an effective counter-insurgency strategy requires a credible commitment to stay as long as necessary in order to convince the population to take a side and stand against the insurgents. In the near future, it could also be in contradiction to the Petraeus plans. In fact, if the conditions to initiate the “transition” do not occur by this summer, the ISAF Commander will probably recommend a reduction of US forces  which would be still more limited and slower than the one desired by a president aimed at being re-elected in 2012. In addition, if Petraeus will push to utilize the “transition dividends” in Afghanistan rather than withdrawal, this will create tensions with Obama and his electoral agenda. As a result, the dynamics between the ISAF Commander and its Commander in Chief will be crucial for NATO strategy in Afghanistan.

The predominant role of Petraeus is already confirmed by two elements. First, in recent days NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan Mark Sedwill has been replaced by another British diplomat Simon Gass, just 12 months after his appointment. Second, the death of Richard Holbrooke last December left the role of US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan de facto empty, and one month later the seat is still filled ad interim by Holbrooke’s deputy Frank Ruggiero. As a whole, the apex of civilian NATO and US presence in Afghanistan seems politically weak, while Petraeus is considered in charge of all aspects of ISAF strategy – military and civilian. In that context, the European allies will probably adjust their positions to the dynamics between the President and the General, and cross their fingers that the second will succeed in managing ISAF strategy.