NATO AND AFGHANISTAN: TIME FOR A DECISION
Next month’s NATO heads-of-state summit in Chicago will likely devote considerable attention to the alliance’s troubled military campaign in Afghanistan. In the eyes of many observers, a NATO failure to consolidate peace in Afghanistan would call into question the organization’s perceived status as the world’s most effective military alliance precisely at a time when NATO leaders are eager to demonstrate its potential contributions to global security with an Asian-focused Washington. Yet, challenges abound, including the prospects for negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban after years of ineffective counterinsurgency tactics.
BACKGROUND: The November 2010 NATO heads-of-state summit in Lisbon saw a strong commitment by NATO governments to sustaining a security presence in Afghanistan, with the member governments extending their transition timeline to 2014. The allies have since reaffirmed this commitment in subsequent ministerial meetings. Despite continuing defense budget cuts, NATO members still deploy more than 100,000 U.S. and other foreign forces.
Even so, the Lisbon summit and subsequent developments have not dispelled the notion that NATO forces in Afghanistan face major obstacles in “winning” that conflict. These challenges range from the insurgents’ resilience in key sectors of the country to the loss of support among many members of the Afghan public, highlighted by the massive protests and insider attacks by Afghans following the burning of Korans by U.S. prison guards. NATO’s relations with Pakistan remain strained over cross-border incidents and Islamabad’s continuing terrorist ties. Even Russian and Chinese support is partial and conditional – they favor the continued presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan because Moscow and Beijing do not want to have to engage the Taliban or other Islamist insurgents with their own security forces in Afghanistan or neighboring Central Asia.
Above all, the most serious security challenge facing NATO is that its local partners – the Afghan government and its military and police forces – still experience major difficulties in providing security, good governance, economic development, and the rule of law. Although NATO is not responsible for these problems, the outcome of its Afghan mission is partially hostage to their resolution. NATO needs an effective Afghan public and security structure to transition the war to Kabul’s leadership. Despite extensive foreign training programs and other NATO support, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) still have little capacity to defeat the Taliban insurgents without continued and extensive ISAF assistance.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Afghanistan’s current situation is the lack of support by Pakistan, whose government has not curbed the long-standing assistance many Pakistanis provide for the Afghan insurgents. The Pentagon has acknowledged in recent reports to Congress that efforts to prevent the Taliban from sending men and material across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border “have not produced measurable results.” The Pakistani army has thus far declined to suppress the Afghan Taliban, which enjoys sanctuary in regions along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, from where they have sustained their insurgency in Afghanistan through cross-border raids and logistics.
Further complicating the situation is NATO’s poor relations with Pakistan. The U.S. airstrike that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani border troops in November 2011 further strained ties already weakened by years of bickering over Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban. It is hard to envisage a successful peace agreement in Afghanistan without Islamabad’s support for the process and the outcome.
IMPLICATIONS: Although the troop surges and new tactics appear to have improved military security in parts of Afghanistan, they have resulted in increased NATO casualties and declining popular support for the war. Throughout the history of its Afghan mission, NATO has had to contend with shortages of intelligence, insufficient resources, and various political and legal restraints on the national military contingents. In addition, the ANSF have been unable to prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a presence in regions cleared by NATO troops. Afghan institutions have also proven incapable of promoting socioeconomic development, achieving a sustained reduction in opium cultivation, or improving diplomatic ties with Pakistan. NATO has acknowledged these difficulties and recently affirmed that, even after the 2014 scheduled of withdrawal of all its combat troops, NATO would continue to provide long-term military training and other support through an “Enduring Partnership.”
In light of this impending withdrawal and while they can still muster considerable punch on the battlefield, NATO leaders and their Afghan allies have also redoubled their efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Taliban representatives held secret meetings with German and American officials in Europe and Qatar in 2011 to engage in “talks about talks.” U.S. officials accept that the Taliban could end its ties with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept Afghanistan’s constitution only at the end of the negotiations in any formal peace agreement rather than as a requirement to begin any talks.
Seeking a negotiated peace agreement is an essential complement to the intensified NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Despite the surge in troops and other resources entering Afghanistan, NATO forces and their Afghan allies acknowledge that they cannot plausibly hope to kill or capture all the Taliban insurgents. Allowing the Taliban the opportunity to establish an office, in Qatar or elsewhere, for its negotiating team is essential to this end, but it must be for the exclusive purpose of negotiating peace and not for conducting propaganda, recruitment, of for establishing an alternative government. Engaging in talks will enhance the movement’s legitimacy, though this might be an acceptable concession if it accelerates actual negotiations and does not lead to endless talks in Doha while the Taliban waits out the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
The challenge is that the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai, demands a major role in any peace talks, whereas the Taliban want to talk only with the U.S. and other foreign governments. Such direct dialogue with Western governments would enhance their legitimacy and weaken Karzai’s perceived authority. But the Afghan government rightly insists on having a decisive say in any power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. Afghan officials would naturally balk at any deal that looked like an international attempt to yield a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the collapse of the internally recognized Kabul government.
Karzai and Western leaders agree that a lasting peace requires the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda, whose alien foreign elements, extremist convictions and terrorist activities make them unacceptable negotiating partners. The key uncertainty is whether a Taliban government would and could prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing bases in any region of Afghanistan under its control, exercising more restraint than before 9/11, or would allow al-Qaeda to transform Afghanistan again into a haven for global terrorist operations. Some argue that the Taliban, eager to return to power, would want to reconcile with the international community or at least prevent the further Western military strikes that would ensue should al-Qaeda again use Afghan territory as a base for external operations. Yet, it is hard to imagine the Taliban actually using force to prevent their al-Qaeda allies from reestablishing a military presence in Afghanistan and employing these new base camps to organize additional terrorist attacks in other countries.
Even if the Quetta Shura Taliban were to break with al-Qaeda, the terrorists would still enjoy the protection of the more radical Haqqani network, which has a major presence in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan and enjoys the patronage of key figures within Pakistan’s national security establishment. Pakistani officials have insisted on having a key role in any peace settlement, and have disrupted talks from which they have been excluded by arresting the senior Taliban representatives involved.
CONCLUSIONS: Unity of effort is critical for winning a counterinsurgency. Ideally, it would build on available indigenous assets eventually to generate self-perpetuating development and security. An operation to clear a village must be viewed not as an isolated event but as part of a broader strategy. A village is cleared so that its people can be free of Taliban interference. A road is built there so that commerce can occur. Local police are trained to solidify the gains. But all too frequently, NATO has been guilty of “mowing the grass”—clearing an area, then leaving, and returning six months or a year later to counter the Taliban insurgents who have exploited the security vacuum. Such an approach to dealing with insurgents is a recipe for failure. Although progress has recently been made in eliminating some of NATO’s national caveats, the remaining domestically driven limitations, compounded by the requirement to negotiate with 28 separate NATO governments for the use of their ISAF-assigned forces, represents a significant burden on the alliance in terms of both operational and tactical flexibility.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.