NATO Commits to Afghan Transition

May 21, 2012

Today is the second day of the NATO summit in Chicago, and the mission in Afghanistan is driving the agenda. Allies have agreed to put Afghan security forces in the lead for combat operations by mid-2013. That shift – which will hand responsibility back to Afghans, allow remaining forces to focus on training Afghan security forces and put fewer Western troops in harm’s way – is supported by experts. Military transition plans aren’t enough though: The NATO summit has little to say on key political and economic questions surrounding transition in Afghanistan, especially as that country prepares for elections in 2014.

While America and our NATO allies grapple with the complex situation that remains after a decade of war, conservatives in the U.S. – namely Mitt Romney – have failed to articulate a coherent alternative, or even acknowledge the sacrifices our NATO allies have made in Afghanistan.

NATO endorses combat transition in mid-2013 moves forward by putting Afghans in the lead and allowing NATO to focus on training. Reuters reports, “NATO leaders will endorse plans to hand over combat command in Afghanistan by mid-2013… At a summit in Chicago, leaders of the 28-nation alliance will endorse plans for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to hand over command of all combat missions to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013 and for the withdrawal of most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014.” 

Lieutenant General David W. Barno (Ret), Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine of the Center for a New American Security explain why this move makes sense now: “Afghan forces must move more rapidly to take the lead in Afghanistan while the United States and its coalition allies still have significant numbers of troops and enablers in the country. U.S. commanders need to assume greater risk in the near-term if the Afghan forces are to succeed in this task. The United States and its coalition partners must change their mind-set toward this war. U.S. and allied troops will not defeat the Taliban before 2014. That job must fall to the Afghans. U.S. commanders will prevent that from happening if they continue to lead the war themselves.” [Reuters, 5/21/12. David Barno, Andrew Exum and Matthew Irvine, 12/11]

Transition must focus on solving political and economic questions in order to solidify military gains. Afghanistan’s security and stability won’t be won by military means alone. As Caroline Wadhams, Colin Cookman and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress write,  “For the past 18 months, the Obama administration has rightly pressed a strategy of transition in Afghanistan – reducing the U.S. military presence and encouraging Afghan responsibility… But current transition planning, while correct in its broad strategic strokes, continues to focus too heavily on the military components of the plan and in particular on the Afghan National Security Forces. Missing from the NATO conference’s agenda and U.S. government planning efforts is a meaningful discussion of the political dimensions of the transition-how NATO’s security transition and international troop drawdown will affect the tenuous power balance that has existed in the country since 2001 among Afghanistan’s various factions and how the security transition will sync with the impending political transition, when Afghans go to the polls for the 2014 presidential election.”

Senator John Kerry (D-MA), writing in the Chicago Tribune, expands: “Afghans must start preparing now for presidential elections in 2014. These elections will determine Afghanistan’s political destiny. If the elections are not free and fair, everything could come unraveled. We cannot repeat the mistakes I saw firsthand in the 2009 elections, when controversy marred everything from voter registration and electoral rolls to ballot boxes and the final count. What Afghanistan needs is a truly independent electoral commission selected with transparency and accountability. The international community can help by supporting the technical process without interfering in domestic politics.” [Caroline Wadhams, Colin Cookman and Brian Katulis, 5/17/12. John Kerry, 5/17/12]

Conservatives, especially Mitt Romney, continue to have no plan for the war, fail to acknowledge alliance contributions. David Sanger of the New York Times recently documented fissures within Mitt Romney’s team on foreign policy. Romney advisors told Sanger, “In the Afghanistan case, ‘none of us could quite figure out what he was advocating,’ one of Mr. Romney’s advisers said… ‘It begged the obvious question,’ the adviser added. ‘Do we stay another decade? How many forces, and how long, does that take? Do we really want to go into the general election telling Americans that we should stay a few more years to eradicate the whole Taliban movement?’” In keeping with this trend, Romney’s statement on the NATO summit failed to mention America’s longest war and the Alliance’s vital role in it.   [David Sanger, 5/12/12. Mitt Romney, 5/18/12]

What We’re Reading

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Violence from Syria spills into Lebanon as two Sunni clerics are killed.

The former Libyan intelligence official convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing died of cancer.

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States.

The Taiwanese president pledged to open up relations with the Chinese government.

North Korea will face more sanctions from its neighbors if it conducts another nuclear test.

Nationalist Tomislav Nikolic was elected to be the next president of Serbia.

Interim President Djoucounda Traore will remain in office until elections are held in Mali.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to again take up constitutional challenges to George W. Bush-era anti-terrorism laws involving wiretapping and Guantanamo prisoners.

The Mexican army arrested the man who is suspected of being responsible for last week’s mass killing in Monterrey.

Commentary of the Day

Matthew Bunn and Abbas Maleki outline a path to avoid a war with Iran that accounts for American and Iranian obstacles.

Anne-Marie Slaughter pushes to bring as many countries as possible into NATO’s global security network.

Ban Ki-Moon advocates a concerted effort to eradicate polio from the only three countries where it persists before it resurges elsewhere.

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