The numbers under consideration at February’s meeting assumed a follow-on force ranging from 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with most coming from NATO countries as well as from a few NATO partners such as Australia. The United States might contribute between one-half and two-thirds of this total. NATO’s member states will now use this figure, which represents the middle range of three figures the Pentagon presented to the alliance last November, as a planning guidepost for pacing their own 2013-2014 reductions.
There has been no serious discussion of a post-2014 “zero option” in terms of coalition troops. Still, keeping NATO military forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 depends on NATO countries and the Afghan government negociating various Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) that would define the legal rights and responsibilities of the foreign forces.
As of now, there are some 66,000 U.S. troops, 37,000 NATO forces and as many as 100,000 foreign security and military support contractors in Afghanistan fighting on behalf of the Afghan government. In his State of the Union address in late-January, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that 34,000 U.S. troops will depart Afghanistan within a year. That would bring the number of U.S. troops down to around 32,000, with further rapid decreases after the April 2014 Afghan presidential elections. The other foreign troops, currently numbering 37,000, will likely follow a comparable glide path.
Determining exactly how many ISAF troops need to stay after 2014 and how fast the other soldiers can leave the country requires establishing in advance what specific missions NATO will need to perform after 2014. According to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the February 2013 defense ministerial included discussions on “preparing a new and different NATO-led mission after 2014 to train, advise and assist Afghan Security Forces.”
In addition to the NATO mission to train, assist and support Afghan forces, a separate counterterrorism force under U.S. command would capture and kill high-value targets, including al-Qaida and Taliban leaders. Unlike the NATO trainers, this counterterrorism force of several thousand U.S. military personnel would embed U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) with Afghan units at the brigade level. Some of these SOF personnel could be deployed to both the U.S. counterterrorism and the NATO training missions.
In this regard, the recent Afghan government decision to order all U.S. SOF to leave the key province of Wardak near Kabul is worrisome. Beyond the allegations of abuses used by Kabul to justify the order, the Karzai government appears concerned that the training of local Afghan forces could empower independent Afghan militias that will challenge its authority. Various Afghan warlords have indeed given indications of seeking to re-establish independent military forces, raising the risk that Afghanistan will return to civil war after 2014. But if the SOF, typically the most effective NATO combat trainers, cannot operate in the field, then the transition to an Afghan lead in combat operations will be further imperiled.
The past two years have seen Afghan forces assume responsibility for ensuring security in an increasing number of provinces, cities and districts in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. government, Afghan forces began leading the majority of operations in July 2012 and now lead approximately 80 percent of operations. The reality of this transition is evident in the declining number of NATO casualties and the rising number of Afghan combat deaths. Despite several high-profile showcase attacks by the Taliban in Kabul and elsewhere, Afghan security forces have thus far been able to maintain overall security in these transferred areas. But the coming months will see the Afghan forces assume responsibility for some of the country’s most insurgent-infested areas.
Despite its growing responsibilities, the Afghan army still suffers from certain weaknesses and gaps, such as inadequate logistics and intelligence, little aviation and firepower, a less-than-ideal ethnic balance and a poor ability to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. Further work is needed to teach the Afghans communications, gunnery, engineering, weapons maintenance and logistics skills. Meanwhile, the Afghan National Police needs even more extensive help before it can fulfill its important missions of preventing the Taliban from returning to areas conquered by the Afghan army as well as supplying the army with actionable intelligence on local Taliban activity.
Partly to address these weaknesses, NATO planners appear to be reconsidering their earlier decision to reduce the total number of Afghan security forces from the current force level of 352,000 to 230,000 troops after 2015, mainly for affordability reasons. The current costs of recruiting, training, equipping and operating Afghan security forces amounts to $6.5 billion per year, whereas maintaining the smaller force would require approximately $4.1 billion annually, depending on what kind of equipment and other support its foreign partners provide. At present, the United States covers $5.7 billion of the yearly bill, whereas the Afghan government covers $500 million and other foreign partners provide $300 million.
The February 2013 NATO defense ministerial formally considered supporting the larger force until 2018 as a means to better ensure Afghanistan’s security, but perhaps even more importantly as a means to counter the “abandonment narrative” so common in Afghanistan’s history, which NATO planners see as a greater threat to the alliance’s campaign goals than the Taliban. Actually sustaining the larger force will require greater financial contributions from non-NATO countries since European governments and the United States all find themselves in an enduring budget crisis.
Nevertheless, the abandonment-entrapment narrative is likely to have an enduring effect in Afghanistan. Although they have pledged to continue some kind of post-ISAF mission after 2014, NATO governments are eager to remove almost all their combat forces in the next two years. The earlier insistence on a condition-based pullout that would link ISAF troop withdrawals to concrete evidence of improved Afghan military capacity has been largely replaced by a fixed withdrawal timetable. This approach, while corresponding to political realities in the Western democracies, unfortunately feeds Afghan expectations that the West will once again abandon their country and emboldens Iran and Pakistan to plan on a post-NATO security vacuum in Afghanistan that they are eager to fill.
Providing additional financial support to sustain a larger Afghan military beyond 2014 will help counter this perception, but NATO will still need to plan carefully and ensure that it calibrates its force levels and missions to correspond with the evolving Taliban threat and other regional security imperatives.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen