NATO plans an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. But that may prove difficult, as some countries are already making a dash for the exit.
France is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced at the end of January after four French soldiers were killed by a member of the Afghan security forces. Now, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has gone one better: he told his NATO colleagues on Thursday in Brussels that he wanted US fighting troops out by mid-2013, with only support and training functions remaining.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was quick to assure everyone that this was not a new strategy. Rasmussen said that Afghanistan's forces should be taking over responsibility for security in all the country's provinces by mid-2013.
The role of the international protection force ISAF, which is led by NATO, would then be to support the Afghans and not to fight itself. All the ISAF units should have left the country by the end of 2014 and only advisers and a few trainers would remain. Rasmussen said this was what had been decided by the heads of state on the NATO countries at their meeting in Lisbon in November 2010. "In that, there's nothing new," he concluded.
US plans to wind down the fighting in 2013
The NATO countries have not decided exactly how their troops should be withdrawn. Leon Panetta has set down some clear guidelines with his timetable. The remaining members of NATO can only agree, since the US troops make up around 90 percent of the fighting units in Afghanistan. The US has 90.000 troops there, and plans to withdraw 22,000 already this summer. Barack Obama is fighting an election and wants to have to something to show.
The British defense minister, Philip Hammond, who has 9,500 troops there, announced a similar withdrawal scenario. Hammond said that it would be paced according to the security situation. One would still be able to take action in 2014 if necessary.
The third largest contingent comes from Germany, with 4,700 members of the Bundeswehr. The German defense minister, Thomas de Maiziere, refuses to see the French and American plans as an early pullout.
"The ISAF mandate runs until the end of 2014," he says. "Nothing has changed in that."
At the same time, the Bundeswehr will move "from the driving seat to the passenger seat," as he puts it, and increasingly restrict itself to supporting and training the Afghan security forces. If France really does leave by the end of 2013, he says, it won't make that much difference, since it only provides around 3,600 troops - just 2 percent. As a NATO diplomat told Deutsche Welle, "In addition you have to remember that the French president is also fighting an election, and says what the voters want to hear."
Doubts about the Afghan security forces
Rasmussen said in Brussels that already 40 percent of the operations in Afghanistan were being commanded and carried out by the Afghan army. In 18 months, that figure should have risen to 100 percent. At the same time as it withdraws, ISAF will be training Afghan soldiers and police to take over. According to NATO, the Afghan army currently consists of 176,000 soldiers, and the police has 143,000 officers. By the end of the year, there should be altogether 352,000 Afghan security personnel. "That's exactly according to plan," says a NATO diplomat.
But around 32 percent of the soldiers and police officers can neither read nor write; the training lasts only a few weeks; and there are repeated attacks on foreign soldiers by members of the Afghan forces. A confidential NATO study which was leaked on Wednesday says that, wherever the ISAF troops have withdrawn, radical Islamist Taliban fighters have moved in. And they meet little resistance from the local troops - on the contrary: they often work together. Members of the security forces would often go over to the Taliban with their weapons because the pay was better.
De Maiziere tried to play down the NATO paper, saying that it was merely reflecting what prisoners and captured Taliban were saying, and that such people often attempt to exaggerate their importance during interrogation.
The soldiers want concrete plans
In mid-January, the chairman of NATO's military committee and NATO's most senior military officer, the Danish General Knud Bartels, said that the military needs a concrete timetable for the withdrawal. Bartels said the NATO members states would have to agree among themselves who would withdraw which troops when.
"Based upon the Lisbon Declaration," he said, "we are moving into a completely new situation and a new posture of the forces. What should not be forgotten is that there's a gap between today and 1st January, 2015. So it's not only a matter of saying what we are going to do from 2015 and onwards, but it's also a matter of coupling those two timeslots together."
At the next NATO summit in Chicago in May, the NATO military commanders say they want to see a more exact plan for withdrawal. That withdrawal is of course also dependent on the actual situation on the ground. A decision also has to be reached as to how the Afghan forces are to be financed after 2015: the Afghan state will require support from outside. The secret NATO document says that the Taliban are currently holding back - they don't want to put anything in the way of the ISAF withdrawal, and will only try to take back control of Afghanistan after 2014.
Author: Bernd Riegert / mll
Editor: Andreas Illmer