The agenda of the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit in Warsaw largely centered on the resurgence of Russia, the migrant crisis, and the Ukraine problem. Lost amid the media’s focus on these issues—and Britain’s EU referendum—NATO released a declaration on Afghanistan. In it, NATO countries promised to give $1 billion annually for the next three years to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), together with investment in troops. However, its past record in Afghanistan calls the organization’s commitment and effectiveness into serious question.
In Warsaw, NATO pledged to provide ANSF with all the necessary help and assistance that can enhance their operational skills so they can work better under civilian control in the coming years. NATO also assured support to continue efforts in bringing Afghanistan closer to regional countries and to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process.
However, more than a decade after NATO’s mission in Afghanistan began, there seems to be no improvement in the security situation in the country. The Taliban, a group which was ruling Afghanistan before 2001 and against whom the NATO alliance took colossal combined action, are still ruling major parts of the country, just as they were prior to October 2001. This puts a question mark on the performance of the U.S.-led NATO operations that will enter into their sixteenth year this October. Moreover, Afghanistan has not been able to install a unified government that can appease all the ethnic units of the society, and which the people can trust unconditionally. Although presidential and parliamentary elections have been held regularly, and elected governments have been sworn in, the election results have always been met with rigging charges. Even the current government could have seen the same fate if a deal had not been reached between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
President Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. troop count in Afghanistan will drop from 9,800 to 8,400—a smaller reduction than was anticipated—will do little to improve the situation. This size may well leave some psychological impact, but is far too small to handle the already fragile security atmosphere of Afghanistan. The number of Afghan security forces is about 350,000, and they are up against many groups like the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and the Islamic State (IS)—highly-capable groups with lots of experience in guerrilla warfare. Additionally, since IS has started to make inroads globally with some brutal attacks in Brussels, Paris, Baghdad, and Dhaka, it may find Afghanistan a good launching pad from which to conduct attacks in South Asia.
Being adjacent to each other, Afghanistan and Pakistan mostly suffer from similar militancy issues. NATO’s combat operations in Afghan territory compel militants to seek hideouts in the northern belt of Pakistan while the Pakistani Army’s ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb forces many to flee Afghanistan for seeking shelter. Operations against militants on either side of the border are inevitable, and thankfully they are in progress, but the blame game between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been on the rise recently. NATO has been repeatedly pushing Afghanistan to bring it closer to its neighbors, but so far has failed in remedying the trust deficit between the two important neighbors. A recent Af-Pak border clash, in which a Pakistan Army major was killed and the border gate remained closed for five days, illustrates the high degree of uncertainty between the two.
Since Warsaw was the last NATO summit for President Obama, there were expectations that he may offer a fruitful plan for a war-torn Afghanistan, but it seems he kicked the can down the road, and the business has been left for the next president. Obama had come to power with an aim to pull out U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and this is what the public had anticipated. However, the conditions still aren’t right to withdraw all U.S. troops, and after eight years in office, Obama is still unable to extricate himself and his country from this conflict.
Even after 15 years of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, there is little reason to be optimistic. Commitments of over $1 billion of annual aid and its continuous training program for ANSF is laudable, but all previous efforts have still to produce concrete results—there seems to be no viable way out of the Afghan puzzle. Afghanistan ranks 9th in the fragile state index, and there is no significant change in the security apparatus, political set-up, and economic front.
NATO is an organization of the world’s most powerful countries. It has been keenly involved in Afghanistan for more than a decade, and its credibility rests on a conclusively peaceful resolution of the Afghan question. However, the aim of restoring peace requires robust and sustained action. Consequently, Afghanistan will be on the agenda of many NATO summits to come.
Image 1: Janek Skarzynski-AFP, Getty
Image 2: Mikhail Palinchak-TASS, Getty