ISW in Brief: The NATO Chicago Summit
by: Nathaniel Barr and Laura Hickey
May 24, 2012
As expected, issues relating to the war in Afghanistan were front and center during the NATO Chicago Summit, which concluded Monday evening. The major outcome of the summit was an agreement between President Obama and NATO leaders to end their leading role in the decade-long war in Afghanistan next summer. However, NATO forces will maintain a significant support role through the end of 2014 and likely beyond. The American presence in Afghanistan will continue even after 2014 in order to achieve the President’s core objectives and will include intensive combat operations for years to come.
In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama outlined his vision for the way forward in Afghanistan. In this speech, he emphasized that his primary goal was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Afghanistan have been severely diminished. The President also stressed that “we must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government” by “[strengthening] the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government.” However, as NATO vowed to make an “irreversible transition” to a support role at the summit, it seems that this objective is in jeopardy. The Taliban is still able to threaten Afghan government control of provinces in both the south and east of Afghanistan. In their official response to the Summit, they pledged to continue their jihad until they expel international forces and topple the Karzai government.
Perhaps the most notable development discussed during the NATO Summit was French President François Hollande’s decision to withdraw France’s troops from Afghanistan by 2013. The French plan to remove 3,300 French combat troops is significant because the withdrawal comes a full two years before the timeline agreed to by each member of the U.S.-led NATO coalition. The consequences of the French withdrawal will increase the burden on the rest of the coalition and Afghan forces, who will have to fill the security vacuum. Despite the fears among the rest of the NATO coalition that the French decision might spur other countries to follow suit, that did not occur.
Pakistan’s acceptance of a last minute invitation to the summit led some NATO members to believe that it might pave the way for an agreement to re-open supply lines, which were closed by the Pakistani government in November 2011 after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in American airstrikes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. officials made it clear they were furious over Pakistan's continued refusal to reopen ground routes used to move fuel and other war supplies into Afghanistan. Although the U.S. and Pakistan have thus far failed to reach an agreement, all sides appear optimistic that the issue would be resolved soon. After the conclusion of the summit on Monday, Chaudry Fawad, special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gillani said “We have to show flexibility in our stance, because it is in Pakistan’s mutual interest.”
While officials at the summit sought to highlight the progress made in the past two years by Afghan forces, many privately said that the shift still represented a significant gamble on Afghanistan’s future security. It is far from certain that the Afghans can either hold areas that coalition troops have wrested from the Taliban in recent years or decisively defeat the Taliban in areas where U.S. forces have not maintained an overwhelming force presence, such as in eastern Afghanistan. According to General John Allen, the Commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban are still a resilient and capable opponent, meaning that U.S. combat operations will not end in 2013, even as the overall mission shifts to more of a support role. Over the course of the summer fighting season, U.S. and Afghan forces will look to consolidate carefully-held gains in the south of the country while going on the offensive in the east. The objective being to degrade the insurgency to such an extent that the Afghan security forces can take over the fight next year. Only time will tell if the transfer of security from international to Afghan troops, expected in NATO’s timeline by 2013, is in fact possible.
Nathaniel Barr and Laura Hickey are Research Interns at ISW.