After the Chicago NATO Summit, More Questions Than Answers?


Last weekend in Chicago, NATO leaders reached a landmark agreement to put the Western alliance on an "irreversible" path out of the decade-long war in Afghanistan and re-affirmed their commitment to withdraw combat forces by the end of 2014. This includes transferring all security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by the middle of 2013. President Barack Obama was determined that United States and NATO move to a “support role” midway through 2013,  regardless of the capabilities of Afghan forces, according to the New York Times. Over the past several years, Obama’s generals have noted that despite substantive progress, nothing is “irreversible.” In fact, General John Allen, the president’s current commander in Afghanistan, was insistent that there will be no end of “combat before the end of 2014,” as ANSF will continue to require considerable support and assistance even after assuming lead responsibility.

Despite the widespread agreement in Chicago, NATO countries face a dilemma. It simply will not be possible to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 while simultaneously slashing the force levels of the ANSF soon after 2014.The objectives agreed upon in Chicago should be explicitly tied to conditions on the ground, which would require an assessment of whether Afghan forces can manage their newly acquired security responsibilities. 

Although the majority of the Afghan population lives in areas the ANSF already oversees, critical areas of strategic importance in the south, such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces, continue to pose security challenges. ISAF commanders will seek to consolidate security gains in the south over the summer while responsibly handing over security duties to the Afghans. U.S. forces must maintain a limited presence in the south to support the Afghans as they lead security duties.

Achieving a successful and careful security transition in the east of Afghanistan will be a vastly different challenge. U.S. forces have not enjoyed the force density or had the time to aggressively operate in the east against the insurgency as they did in the south. Although the original surge concept involved phased offensives, first focusing on the south and then the east, the plan was rendered impossible when Obama announced his intent to recover the surge forces by the end of September 2012, only two years after the surge began. In the east, therefore, the insurgency has not been sufficiently degraded. The Haqqani network maintains a sophisticated operational and logistical base that allows its operatives to resource and execute spectacular attacks stretching from the Pakistani border to Kabul to northern Afghanistan. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2012, Senator John McCain asked General John Allen what force he believed he would need in 2013. Allen replied that the U.S. would “need significant combat power in 2013.” McCain then asked whether 68,000 was a sufficient number, and Allen said that was a “good going-in number” but that he owed Obama “some analysis on that.” If Allen is granted the force he needs for the time he needs it, there is a reasonable chance of success. If not, the burden will fall to the ANSF.

The ANSF have made substantial progress over the past several years as they continue to grow towards their peak of 352,000 before the end of 2012. The text of the Chicago Summit Declaration on Afghanistan states, “The third wave of provinces to enter the transition process was announced by President Karzai on 13 May 2012. This means that 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population will soon be living in areas where the ANSF have taken the lead for security. By mid-2013, all parts of Afghanistan will have begun transition, and the Afghan forces will be in the lead for security nationwide.” The declaration further states, “With the support of ISAF nations, Afghanistan is committed to developing an ANSF which is governed by the Constitution and is capable of providing security to all Afghans.” This, however, is exactly backwards. In order to maintain a sufficiently sized ANSF of 352,000 for several years beyond 2014, the declaration should read, “With the support of Afghanistan, ISAF nations have the responsibility to develop an ANSF … capable of providing security to all Afghans.” The Afghans are only able to contribute approximately $500 million toward sustaining ANSF each year. Supporting an ANSF of this size will require approximately $5 billion to $6 billion each year, but the U.S. and NATO appear to be aiming for a much lower number. So far neither Obama nor NATO leaders have explicitly stated the need for the ANSF to be sufficiently capable of providing security beyond 2014. Without recognition of the importance of a strong ANSF, the future security of the Afghan state will be in jeopardy.

Coming out of Chicago, the U.S. and NATO are unwilling to commit to either of the two options necessary to stabilize Afghanistan. Neither the U.S. nor its international partners want to maintain combat troops in Afghanistan nor provide the resources required to sustain a capable and necessary ANSF. This is a recipe for failure. If the international community wants out of Afghanistan, it must support an ANSF of 352,000 until conditions on the ground dictate that a force of that size is no longer necessary. Shorting the ANSF while expecting they assume full responsibility for the security of their country is an irresponsible demand. For the U.S. and NATO, committing to sustaining the ANSF at their peak strength is the “least bad” option and absolutely necessary to allow the international community to significantly reduce its role while providing a reasonable chance at stability in Afghanistan.