The NATO Summit and Afghanistan
April 4, 2008
We need to be very cautious about what the definition of success is in NATO's approach to Afghanistan. What is being described as progress seems far closer to buying time at best, and a slow slide towards failure at worst. Certainly, NATO's accomplishments to date will not keep pace with the growth of the Taliban's political and economic influence in Afghanistan, and do nothing to deal with the problems of Pakistan.
The French commitment of a battalion (about 700 troops) to be deployed in the east may allow the U.S. to make limited shifts forces to the south and help ensure that Canada remains in place. It is also nice that Sarkozy stated something to the effect that NATO "must succeed in Afghanistan no matter how long it takes." In reality, however, NATO is making very slow increases in force levels to meet a requirement for a long term presence that senior NATO officers have said requires at least 3-4 battalions, and in private they indicate it will require much larger reinforcements unless all NATO countries lift their caveats and restrictions.
The fact is that every year NATO has had insufficient forces in Afghanistan. The end result of this has been to expose areas to Taliban and other Islamist penetration, and to create a requirement for more forces that NATO progressively fails to meet. This ministerial solves no problems. It offers insufficient reinforcements coupled to a temporary US Marine build-up that will cover one campaign season. It makes no progress in getting to the force ratios that would allow NATO to go from "win, leave, and hold too few oil spots," to "win, hold, stay, cover enough territory to matter, and build."
A real world assessment would also point out that the Afghan Army's real-world progress is also much slower than NATO wants or claims, and progress with the police and any form of local security force is far too slow to matter. The ANA may be building up to 80,000 men next year, but the end result will still be a fraction of the force being created in Iraq with far less training and equipment, far fewer advisors and embeds, at best able to take responsibility only in a relatively safe area like Kabul.
Worse, France has added some units, but not removed all restrictions. Germany, Spain, and Italy have not changed, and Taliban support areas are steadily increasing in central Afghanistan and with pockets in the south. Touting a single French battalion equivalent also ignores the fact that the manning and funding of aid workers -- providing dollars to match the bullets - will fall far short of the requirement for area coverage in terms of civilian aid while the central government continues to fail to establish an effective presence in many areas. The problem of civilian partners in Afghanistan -- compounded by a failure to deliver pledged aid and aid programs that repatriate as much as 40% of the money actually spent to countries outside Afghanistan -- is even worse than in Iraq. There also is a failure to spend where the fight and threats are, and like politics, troops and aid must be local to win.
It is also far from clear that anything will come from NATO's agreement on a Vision Statement on Afghanistan, outlining the rationale and goals of their engagement. The Summit Declaration may say that: "our UN mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, currently comprising 40 nations, is our top priority."
NATO may also say that it endorses an integrated, medium-term pol/mil plan on Afghanistan, consistent with the Afghanistan Compact and the Afghan National Development Strategy - which will be updated regularly and against which progress will be measured ( http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/2008/p08-052e.html). The declaration may endorse an action plan to develop and implement NATO's contribution to a comprehensive civil-military approach to S and R and working with NGOs and relevant local bodies.
So far, however, every such document has been a set of concepts and priorities where plans consist of loose goals and not specific, integrated programs for action with meaningful milestones and spending plans. Documents like the Afghan Compact, and its related progress reports, have been largely vacuous and short of any measures or specifics tied to war fighting goals, security, and stability. They have never included meaningful requirements analysis or shown how given actions will lead to a coordinated effort. It is also far from clear that NGOs are always prepared to work with NATO, or have meaningful priorities to deal with a wartime environment.
NATO's actions are also conspicuous for what they do not mention: counternarcotics and Pakistan, So far, the US push for eradication has done little more than move the center of drug production into Taliban controlled areas while increasing the crop and area of cultivation. Europeans correctly find the US approach to be counterproductive, and call for an emphasis on development and creating alternatives first. Accordingly, one of the key messages of the NATO Ministerial seems to be that Europe did not overtly attempt to save us from our own incompetence.
As for Pakistan, one thing NATO might have done is to help take the onus off of the US for seeming to sponsor a counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan that the new victors in Pakistani politics -- both nationally and in FATA -- seem to feel is our war and is destabilizing Pakistan for our advantage. A collective approach, with Europe taking a strong position, might have helped. Instead, there seems to be silence.
In short, what NATO is touting as progress isn't even treading water. It is slowly sinking.