international analysis and commentary

NATO’s exit strategy from Afghanistan after the Chicago Summit

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On the backdrop of continued economic turbulence around the world and in an atmosphere dominated by talks of austerity and budget cuts, NATO allies met in Chicago to discuss the future of the alliance and, more urgently, to lay out the next steps of the exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Confronted with voters who are increasingly restless about the human and financial costs of the war and trying to resist an anti-incumbent tide that is growing across Europe and the United States (the most recent victim being former French President Nicolas Sarkozy), NATO leaders in Chicago attempted to shape a three-pronged message destined to multiple and discordant audiences.

US President Barack Obama and his European counterparts promised their citizens that the end of the war is in sight and that soon the alliance will be largely disengaged from Afghanistan. At the same time, they reassured the Afghan people that the international community will not abandon them once the withdrawal of foreign troops and the handover of responsibility to Afghan security forces are completed at the end of 2014. With this, NATO also sent a warning to Taliban insurgents and other regional spoilers – who might be looking at the departure of international soldiers as an opportunity – that the alliance is in Afghanistan to stay, at least to some extent.

For now, the transition appears to be on track, even in the face of a less than comforting security situation. But worries remain, particularly among the Afghans themselves. “Afghans have mixed emotions about Chicago,” says Omar Samad, former Afghan Ambassador to Canada and France, now with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.  “They are somewhat reassured that the international community is trying its best to have a responsible transition and showing some commitment to the future but, at the same time, it feels like there is no real Plan B in case anything goes wrong.”

The NATO Summit in Chicago did not really break any new ground. On the contrary, participants simply reaffirmed the intention to stick to the roadmap agreed in Lisbon two years ago, of a gradual withdrawal of all international combat troops by the end of 2014. Only, this year’s meetings set an additional interim goal: by the summer of 2013, Afghan forces will lead combat operations across the country, with ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) soldiers playing just a support role.

NATO does intend to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but with a minimal footprint and only to train Afghan forces. In preparation for the transition, future funding levels for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were another topic of discussion in Chicago. But the Summit was not intended as a pledging conference and few new details emerged on how the international community plans to pay for it all. What is known is that, starting in 2015, the government in Kabul will be expected to pitch in, initially to the tune of about $500 million out of an estimated $4 billion needed to maintain adequate troop levels. Afghanistan would then progressively take responsibility for an increasing share of its military budget. Half of the rest of the money will come from the U.S. , while the other half will come from other ISAF partners, until Kabul is in the position to shoulder the whole sum in 2024.

“This will not mark the end of Afghanistan’s challenges, obviously, or our partnership with that important country,” said President Obama in his closing remarks. “But we are making substantial progress against our core objective of defeating al Qaeda and denying it safe haven, while helping the Afghans to stand on their own. And we leave Chicago with a clear roadmap. Our coalition is committed to this plan to bring our war in Afghanistan to a responsible end.”

Setting aside NATO and ISAF’s good intentions, it is evident that the terms of the transition, as they are shaping up, are being dictated more by domestic pressure in the US and Europe than by developments on the ground in Afghanistan, where the security situation remains very fragile (the United Nations calculates that the number of civilian deaths reached a record high of 3,031 in 2011.)

Most importantly, there seems to be almost no progress on the key question of Pakistan. Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan has always been strong and often destabilizing. The historic ties between Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI) and the Afghan insurgency are fairly well known. But nobody seems to have a grasp on a possible solution or an idea of what the right incentives might be to encourage Pakistan to take a more constructive approach toward Afghanistan. To make matters worse, at this time the relationship between Pakistan and the US is at historic lows, with the two countries squabbling over supply routes. In Chicago, Presidents Obama and Ali Zardari only met briefly and informally, underscoring simmering tensions.

Additionally, the international community appears keen to treat the military transition separately from the concurrent political and economic transitions. Afghanistan will hold very important presidential elections in 2014. Over the same period of time, the country’s economy, now entirely reliant on the presence of the international community, will also have to learn to stand on its own as foreign troops go back home.

“Few people want to talk about the economic impact of the withdrawal, of the shutting down of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and of the substantial reduction in development funding,” says Fabrizio Foschini, a Kabul-based analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Some of these developments will affect significantly the ability of the Afghan government to implement projects in the provinces, its ability to co-opt local strongman, the ability of the latter to preserve their supremacy, and ultimately the security situation of those areas.”

Overall, the biggest fear that lingers is that the timeline that has been set might turn out to be too artificial and rigid – in other words, inadequate if things take a turn for the worst.