Flexible scheme

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

Afghan President Hamid Karzai with U.S. President Barack Obama at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Novemebr 20.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Afghan President Hamid Karzai with U.S. President Barack Obama at the NATO summit in Lisbon on Novemebr 20.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

NATO: Member-countries agree to a phased transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces before the withdrawal of troops in 2014.

AFGHANISTAN was the major item on the agenda at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit held in Lisbon for two days from November 18. It is no secret that the majority of NATO members want to withdraw their troops at the earliest from that country. Public opinion in their countries is strongly against the war in Afghanistan. Near the summit venue, thousands of protesters shouted, Peace, yes. NATO no.

United States President Barack Obama and other senior heads of state in the West had earlier in the year mentioned 2014 as the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. But in recent months Obama has had an apparent change of mind given the military facts on the ground in the country. Despite his much-hyped military surge, the Taliban has held its ground and seems to be in fact expanding its influence to areas where its presence has been insignificant. To add to Obama's and NATO's problems, President Hamid Karzai has once again become vocal in his demand for a speedy withdrawal of foreign forces and a halt to the targeting of civilians in NATO's counter-insurgency operations.

However, at the summit, despite their misgivings, America's European partners publicly supported the Obama administration's latest game plan in Afghanistan. They agreed to a phased transfer of responsibility to the 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 was dependent on the Afghan government making sufficient progress in maintaining security. Talking to the media at the end of the summit, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO, stated categorically that NATO forces would stay on after the transition in a supporting role in Afghanistan. In order to mollify 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Many NATO member-countries have already withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan.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. The U.S.' closest ally, Britain, has said that the last of its combat troops will be out by 2015.

A long-term security agreement between NATO and the Afghan government was signed during the summit. NATO officials have been saying for some time that a large number of NATO troops will stay behind after 2014 to prop up the Karzai government and to train Afghan forces. 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, Rasmussen told reporters.

His views may not find many takers in European capitals. Before the Lisbon summit, Alain Juppe, the newly appointed French Defence Minister, had said that Afghanistan was a trap for all the parties involved there. Juppe, who has served as Prime Minister earlier, also said that his country was determined to hand over areas under its military control to the Afghan forces as soon as it could.

The Nicolas Sarkozy government has indicated that it wants to remove all French troops from Afghanistan before the 2012 presidential election. More than 70 per cent of the French public oppose the war in Afghanistan.

NATO-Russia bonhomie

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 setback for NATO if the transportation of arms and supplies through the attack-prone Pakistani route becomes untenable.

The agreement 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 present, NATO is trying to stay relevant by conjuring up new enemies all over the world. First it was the Balkans, now it is Afghanistan. The next stop could be either Somalia or Sudan.

Obama, on his part, has defended the counter-insurgency tactics that have led to the death 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 that U.S. troops were being shot at and that they needed to protect themselves. Obama, however, expressed confidence that the U.S. would be able to start downsizing its troops by July 2011 as he had publicly pledged. We are in a better place now than we were a year ago, he said. But he also warned that making progress between now and next summer was the key.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that only a fraction of the U.S. troops will be left behind in 2014 and that they would be in a train-and-advice role of the kind that the U.S. has taken on in Iraq. More than 50,000 U.S. troops still remain in Iraq. Besides, the U.S. has constructed huge military bases in Iraq. Its aim is to ensure permanent military occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan for long-term strategic reasons.

Gen. David Richards, the head of the British Armed Forces, recently said that U.S./NATO troops might have to stay in Afghanistan for the next 30 to 40 years. The Afghan countryside is dotted with the ever-expanding U.S. forward operating bases (FOB). Many of the FOBs are along the borders with Iran and Pakistan. 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 FOBs in the country, the U.S. is preparing for a long haul in Afghanistan.

Gen. David Petraeus, the man in charge of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, assured those present at the NATO summit that the military surge had broken the Taliban's momentum. However, according to reports, not many European leaders were convinced by his assertions. Before the summit, the U.S. Defence Department had issued a statement saying that the 2014 departure date was an aspirational goal, not a rigid deadline.

Senior officials in the Obama administration have been saying different things on the exit strategy from Afghanistan. After the NATO summit, 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 U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would start in July 2011 and be completed by 2014. The majority of Americans now disapprove of the war in Afghanistan, which comes with a monthly price tag of $17 billion for the U.S. taxpayer.

India's role

The Obama administration wants Pakistan and India to back its new Afghanistan strategy. The U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the U.S. had invited both the countries to be engaged in and participate in the transition programme in Afghanistan. He 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 an ally of the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan, was not invited to the NATO summit. On the other hand, Japan, a country that only provides economic aid to Afghanistan, was invited.

Mark Sedell, NATO's Ambassador to Afghanistan, however, acknowledged the crucial role Pakistan would have to play if there had to be a drawdown of Western troops in Afghanistan. He told the media in Lisbon that the scale and pace of transition would depend on how quickly Pakistan weeded out terrorists from their safe havens in the tribal areas along its 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 had influence in order 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 aircraft carriers carrying 120 planes have been deployed to increase the air power. Heavy Abrams tanks are being used in a Taliban stronghold like Kandahar to augment 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 United Nations has reported that the number of 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 the inhuman tactics employed by the occupying forces seem to have been counterproductive. Following the NATO summit, the Taliban released a statement that it would force the occupation forces to leave the country even before the 2014 deadline for withdrawal.

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

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