Chicago NATO summit sets stage for Afghan withdrawal

With France set to leave at the end of 2012, and the rest of NATO out by 2014, the question is whether Afghanistan's own forces can meet the challenge.

By , Staff writer

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    From left, President Obama, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari talk during a family photo of NATO leaders at the NATO Summit in Chicago, Monday, May 21.

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So that’s it, then. C'est tout. 

At the NATO summit in Chicago, newly elected French President François Hollande announced that French "combat troops will be withdrawn at the end of 2012," as his Socialist Party had promised in their presidential campaigns this spring.

“We have done more than our duty and I remind everyone of French losses: 83 men lost their lives, there have been numerous wounded," President Hollande said, according to Radio France International, adding that the calendar for the French withdrawal would be outlined "in the next 10 days."

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When the French leave, other NATO members will not be far behind. At the conference, President Obama said that the plan to withdraw 130,000 NATO troops from Afghanistan by 2014 was “irreversible.” Still, it appears up to 20,000 British and US troops will remain behind at Afghan bases such as Bagram, Kandahar, and Jalalabad for some time after 2014.

But Mr. Obama also promised that the US and other foreign allies of the Afghan government would not abandon the country they have supported for the past decade since the toppling of the Taliban government. "As Afghans stand up, they will not stand alone," Obama said, according to the Telegraph.

Parting is never easy. But after a decade of war in Afghanistan, and a four-year-long economic crisis to sort out back home, NATO members are finding it easier to contemplate departure.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s increasing demands for NATO departure certainly have set the stage, although diplomats and security experts have expressed doubts about whether Afghanistan’s army and police forces will be able to keep the peace and secure Afghanistan’s borders after NATO leaves.

At the conference, decked out in a dark grey salwar kameez, President Karzai put a brave face on his country’s future.  

"Afghanistan has moved forward, and Afghanistan will defend itself. And the progress that we have achieved, the Afghan people will not allow it to be put back or reversed," Karzai told CNN in an interview.

Commitment and effectiveness?

Wars are not won by sheer numbers of troops, of course, but rather by the quality of those troops, and the depth of commitment to a cause. Afghanistan’s National Army has good numbers, with about 350,000 soldiers, but Afghan officials and US military planners have some doubts about their commitment and effectiveness.

As the Monitor’s Tom Peter writes, only 42 percent of the military operations in the country are Afghan led. According to a recent US Department of Defense report, only 13 out of the 156 Afghan Army battalions are classified as “independent with advisers” and only 74 are seen as “effective with advisers.” Pull out the NATO advisers, and the whole defense edifice could come tumbling down.

All of this, of course, pleases the Taliban. While the Karzai government still cherishes the hope of negotiating with the Taliban, perhaps welcoming in some of the more moderate members into the Afghan political process as parliamentarians, police chiefs, or cabinet ministers, Taliban spokesmen make it clear that they see the NATO departure as a necessary precursor to their return to Afghanistan, with or without an invitation from Karzai.

"The declaration of the new president of France, Francois Hollande, that all its troops will be removed from Afghanistan at the end of this year is a decision based on realities and a reflection of the opinion of its nation," the Taliban said in statement posted on its website, as quoted by the Associated Press. "We call upon all the other NATO member countries to avoid working for the political interests of American officials and answer the call of your own people by immediately removing all your troops from Afghanistan."

Even if NATO does go, it will not go quietly, says Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces. Quoted by the Telegraph newspaper, General Allen said NATO combat operations will continue fighting against the Taliban until the “31st of December, 2014,”

“The Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and so we have planned for that,” he said.

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