People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 12, 2010


NATO & Afghanistan: Delaying the Inevitable



Yohannan Chemerapally


AFGHANISTAN was the major item on the agenda at the NATO summit held in Lisbon in the third week of November. It is no secret that the majority of NATO members want to withdraw their troops at the earliest from Afghanistan. Public opinion in their countries is strongly against the war in Afghanistan. Near the summit venue, thousands of protestors had painted the streets red, chanting “Peace, Yes. NATO, No”.  President Barack Obama and senior western heads of state had earlier in the year mentioned the year 2014 as the deadline for withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. But in recent months, Obama has had an apparent change of mind given the military facts on the ground in Afghanistan. Despite his much hyped military surge, the Taliban has held its ground and seems to be in fact expanding its influence to areas where previously its presence was insignificant. To add to Obama’s and NATO’s problems, president Hamid Karzai has once again become vocal in his demands for a speedy withdrawal of foreign forces and a halt to the targeting of civilians in NATO’s counter insurgency operations.


At the NATO summit, America’s European partners despite their misgivings have chosen to at least publicly support the Obama administration’s latest game plan in Afghanistan. They have agreed to a phased transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces before starting the military withdrawal in 2014. At the same time, NATO leaders issued a warning that the 2014 deadline was not sacrosanct and is dependant on the Afghan government making sufficient progress in maintaining its own security. The secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, talking to the media after the end of the summit, categorically stated that NATO forces “will stay after the transition in a supporting role” in Afghanistan. As a sop to European public opinion, Rasmussen said that he did not visualise NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) playing a combat role in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Many NATO member countries have already withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan. Others have insisted that they will be completely out of the country by 2014. America’s closest ally, Britain, has said that the last of its combat troops will be out by 2015.


A long term security agreement was signed between NATO and the Afghan government was signed during the summit. NATO officials have been saying for some time that a large number of its troops will be staying behind after 2014 to provide training and to prop up the Karzai government. “To put it simply, the Taliban or anyone else who wants to wait us out, they can forget it. We will stay as long as it takes to finish the job”, the NATO secretary general told reporters. Rasmussen’s views may not find many takers in European capitals. The newly appointed French defence minister, Alain Juppe, had said before the Lisbon summit that Afghanistan is “a trap for all the parties involved there”. Juppe, a former French prime minister, also said that his country was determined to hand over areas under their military control to Afghan forces as soon as they could. The Sarkozy government has indicated that it wants to remove all French troops from Afghanistan before the 2012 presidential elections. More than 70 per cent of the French public oppose the war in Afghanistan.




During the summit, NATO also signed an agreement with Russia to expand the supply of war materials for NATO troops through an overland route from Central Asia. It will be a fall back for NATO if transportation of arms and supplies through the attack prone Pakistani route becomes untenable.


The agreement also illustrates the increased bonhomie between NATO and Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev, was a special invitee to the summit. Medvedev said that Russia was “bolstering” its relationship with NATO in order to build a “strategic partnership”. NATO was founded in 1949 in response to the alleged threat posed by the USSR. Logically it should have disbanded after the collapse of the Socialist bloc and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact—the military alliance of Communist countries led by Moscow. At the moment, NATO is trying to stay relevant by conjuring up new enemies all over the world. First it was the Balkans, now it is Afghanistan. Next stop could be either Somalia or Sudan.


President Obama on his part has defended the counter-insurgency tactics that have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in Afghanistan. While describing Karzai’s criticism of civilian deaths “as entirely legitimate”, he said that the Afghan president should also understand American troops are being shot at and that they “needed to protect themselves”. Obama however expressed confidence that the US will be able to start downsizing their troops by July 2011, as he had publicly pledged. “We are in a better place now than we were in a year ago”, he said. But he also warned that “making progress between now and next summer was the key”.


The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has said that only a fraction of the US troops will be left behind in 2014 and that they “would be in a train and advice role” of the kind that the US has taken on in Iraq. More than 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq. Besides, they have constructed huge military bases in Iraq to ensure a permanent presence. The aim of the US is to ensure a permanent military occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan for long term strategic reasons. The head of the British armed forces, Gen David Richards, said recently that US/NATO troops may have to stay in Afghanistan for the next thirty to forty years. The Afghan countryside is dotted with ever expanding US forward operating bases (FOB). Many of the FOB’s are along the Iran and Pakistan borders. In August this year, the Pentagon announced plans to build three more bases; each of them budgeted at over $100 million. Given the number of FOB’s in the country, the US is preparing for a long haul in Afghanistan.


2014: An Aspirational


Gen David Petraeus, the man in charge of the US military operations in Afghanistan, assured those present at the NATO summit that the military surge had “broken the Taliban’s momentum”. According to reports, not many European leaders were convinced by the assertions of Petraeus. Before the NATO summit, the US defence department had issued a statement saying that the 2014 departure date was an “aspirational goal” not a rigid deadline. Senior Obama officials have been saying different things on the “exit strategy” from Afghanistan. After the NATO summit ended, the vice president, Joseph Biden, said that 2014 was a “drop dead” date for the withdrawal of all combat troops from Afghanistan. Earlier Richard Holbrooke, the US special ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan had said that withdrawal of American troops would start in July, 2011 and completed by 2014. A majority of Americans now disapprove of the war in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan now comes with a monthly price tag of $17 billion for the American tax payer.


The Obama administration wants Pakistan and India to back its new Afghanistan strategy. The US state department spokesman said that the US has invited both the countries “to be engaged in and participate in the transition program in Afghanistan”. The state department spokesman has endorsed India’s “significant role” in the strengthening of Afghanistan’s economy and security but said that New Delhi would not have a direct role in the training of Afghan security forces. He also stressed the importance of resolving the “vitally important” Kashmir dispute to foster stability in the South Asian region. Pakistan, a key player and ally of the US in the war in Afghanistan, was not invited to the NATO summit. Even, Japan, a country that only provides economic aid to Kabul, was invited to the summit.


NATO’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedell however acknowledged the crucial role Pakistan will have to play if there has to be a drawdown of western troop in Afghanistan. Sedell told the media in Lisbon that the “scale and pace of transition” will depend on how quickly Pakistan weeds out the terrorists from their safe havens in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. He also said that Islamabad had a big role to play in persuading sections of the Taliban and other anti-American groups over which it has influence, to make peace with the Karzai regime.


 Convincing ordinary Afghans about the allegedly benign nature of the occupation will be an impossible task. After the American troop surge earlier this year, air strikes in Afghanistan are up by 50 per cent. Two American air craft carriers carrying 120 planes have been deployed to increase the air power. Heavy Abrams tanks are being used in Taliban stronghold like Kandahar to further augment US/NATO firepower. American commanders claim that their purpose “is not to kill our way out of this war” but the dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties tells another story. The UN has reported that Afghan civilians killed in the conflict rose by a third in the first six months of 2010. The aim is to force the Taliban to the negotiating table but so far this inhuman tactic seems to have been counter-productive. The Taliban released a statement after the NATO summit that they would force the occupation forces to leave the country even before the so called 2014 deadline for withdrawal.


The Taliban has also denied that high level peace talks are currently on with the Karzai administration. The Taliban stance on talks has been clear for some time. For any meaningful talks to start, senior Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, have said that all foreign forces will first have to announce a ceasefire and then leave the country.