NATO’s Defence Ministerial: Afghanistan after 2014
Following NATO’s Chicago Summit in May 2012, senior defense officials met in Brussels, Belgium on October 10 to discuss key issues facing the NATO alliance in the years ahead. The NATO mission in Afghanistan was their primary focus, and the meeting produced several critical strategic announcements.
Opening the meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated that the alliance will complete the mission in Afghanistan without adjustment to the strategy or timeline for the transition of security responsibility to the Afghans, despite substantive media speculation that some NATO members would push for an early withdrawal date. This is a welcome development that should bolster the narrative that the international community will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014. Rasmussen noted that, as Afghan Security Forces increasingly take over responsibility for securing key provinces and districts, some NATO forces will redeploy or drawdown, but he was careful to emphasize that this drawdown is not a rush to the exits but a logical result of the transition process.
Second, Rasmussen noted that contributing members will work to draft a new mission statement for NATO beyond the end of 2014 to constitute an enduring training, advising, and assisting mission. Rasmussen stated that NATO members plan to agree on a detailed outline of the post-2014 mission by early 2013 and complete a finalized plan prior to the end of 2013. Rasmussen was careful to note that NATO’s post-2014 mission will not be a combat mission. However, despite Rasmussen’s insistence, there will be a requirement for a combat force post-2014 that will involve U.S. and international forces, even though they will not be leading the fight. For example, as Afghan forces engage in pitched battles with insurgents, international forces embedded in advisory roles will need the authority to assist in that fight. Other examples include the enduring counterterrorism mission that Rasmussen acknowledged would likely be augmented by U.S. forces and highly trained Afghan commandos, as well as the legacy requirement to secure logistics routes and provide static base security, both of which necessitate a mandate to engage in combat when necessary. NATO forces can and should fill these equally critical roles beyond 2014.
A significant factor that could impact the nature of NATO’s post-2014 mission is U.S. negotiations for a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. Recent reporting indicates that Kabul is positioning to secure sophisticated military equipment and curtail immunity for U.S. forces operating in the country beyond 2014. NATO countries will likely grapple with these same controversial issues as they draft their post-2014 mission statement, and the success or failure of the U.S.-Afghan bilateral talks will have a direct impact on NATO’s willingness to support the Afghan state with troops and money after 2014. Without U.S. forces, NATO will not be able or willing to provide troops—this will surely expedite mission failure.
Third, Rasumussen addressed the “green on blue” attacks that have doubled in frequency over the last two years. Rasmussen assured partner countries that the international community and Afghan government have taken numerous measures to reduce the risk of insider attacks, including more stringent vetting and screening, counterintelligence, and emphasis placed upon cultural awareness. In early October, there was speculation that NATO troop-contributing nations were contemplating the acceleration of troop withdrawal timelines due to increasing “green on blue” incidents and domestic outrage over their failure to quell the attacks. However, in recent weeks, most partnership and training operations between Afghan soldiers and ISAF have resumed after a brief suspension in mid-September, which demonstrates ISAF’s resolve to continue the critically important training mission. Although the attacks do not impel a shift in strategy, they still represent a propaganda victory for the insurgency and a trust deficit between Afghan and international forces. Thus, “green on blue” remains a significant vulnerability that militants will continue to exploit.
Lastly, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was on hand to announce that President Obama plans to nominate current COMISAF (Commander, International Security Assistance Force) General John Allen to succeed Admiral James Stavridis as commander of U.S. European Command and as NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe. Panetta also announced that General Joseph Dunford Jr., the current Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, is President Obama’s choice to succeed General Allen as COMISAF. Both nominations must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. General Dunford would become the fifth top allied commander in Afghanistan in five years if he passes Senate confirmation. The new COMISAF will assume charge at a critical time, wherein he must oversee the drawdown of coalition forces while continuing to operate aggressively against the insurgency and navigating the complex Afghan political scene ahead of the 2014 Afghan Presidential elections.
Jeffrey Dressler is senior research analyst and team lead for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.