NATO to shed combat command in Afghanistan by mid-2013 (+video)
NATO leaders on Monday approved a plan, promoted by the US, to shift the command of combat operations to Afghan forces by next summer. It's NATO's latest step in the transition out of a fighting role in the war.
In Pictures The NATO Summit
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The shift, part of what President Obama called a “phased transition … to responsibly bring this war to an end,” is another step in the NATO alliance’s withdrawal from a fighting role in the decade-long Afghanistan war.
While the end of the Afghan war may be on the horizon for US and other international troops, that does not mean the conflict will be over in two years, regional experts say. The Taliban will remain a fighting force, they say, and the fundamental question of Afghanistan’s stability is likely to be just as uncertain then as it is today.
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"This will not mark the end of Afghanistan's challenges, obviously," Mr. Obama said of the plan adopted at the summit to "transition" out of the Afghan war. But he said it is a plan for "helping the Afghans to stand on their own."
The handover of operations command to the Afghans by the middle of next year is a sign that the 28-nation alliance is accelerating its drawdown from Afghanistan, say some regional experts – particularly as NATO faces pressure from countries, like France, that have announced plans to step up their troop withdrawals.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen rebuffed those charges at a summit-closing press conference, saying the 2013 transition to Afghan command “does not represent an accelerated road map.”
He also cautioned that it does not mean the International Security Assistance Forces will cease to participate in combat operations – a point the White House also emphasized in a statement.
US and other international forces “will continue to conduct combat operations as necessary through the end of 2014,” the statement notes. Still, “after the mid-2013 milestone,” it continues, international forces “will continue to evolve to reflect the new primary focus on training, advising, and assisting” the Afghan security forces.
Mr. Rasmussen said next year’s transfer of operational command to the Afghans would be a crucial step in reaching the December 2014 deadline for ending NATO’s combat role smoothly and successfully. “It takes usually 12 to 18 months to actively implement a transition,” he said.
Military experts say the shift to Afghan command next year makes sense because it will give the US and other NATO officers time to mentor their Afghan counterparts on combat command while they are still on the ground in sufficient numbers.