At the NATO conference this Friday in Lisbon, President Barack Obama and other NATO officials are expected to begin to clarify a timeline for the eventual withdraw of US forces in Afghanistan. While Obama initially suggested that the US would gradually remove forces starting in July 2011, the focus is being shifted to 2014 as the deadline for the end of US combat operations in Afghanistan.
Additionally, the US and its NATO allies are expected to outline a plan to begin handing over provinces to Afghan authorities and security forces.
Afghans are watching.
“For Afghans, the discussion of the date has been a big thing. The suggestion that troops would be leaving by 2011 has caused quite a bit of consternation and concern,” says Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul.
The Lisbon summit “is more about a longer-term strategy for Afghanistan. We haven’t heard what’s specifically going to come out of the conference yet, but all the indicators are that this is a much more forward looking, much more strategic view of the road ahead looking out several years. I don’t recall any NATO summit over the last several years that has even attempted to touch on that,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
As war planners prepare to potentially agree on an eventual end date for international involvement in Afghanistan, there is likely to be increasing focus on the readiness of Afghan security forces to take control of the situation here.
Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, (ISAF) is likely to point to gains within the Afghan army and police, the security forces still suffer from corruption, questionable professionalism across Afghanistan, and there are also concerns about insurgent infiltration.
“There are more than 100,000 foreign soldiers in the country right now who are professional and well-equipped and they can’t defeat the Taliban. How can the Afghan Army and police defeat them alone?,” asks Ahmad Shah Wahdat, a librarian in Kabul.
Despite this, most Afghans would also like to see NATO forces here take the requests of their leaders more seriously.
Over the past week, Karzai called on US and other foreign forces to stop their night raids and reduce their overall patrols. Although the remarks were popular among Afghans, who have long spoken out against night raids, Karzai’s comments drew much ire from top American commander Gen. David Petraeus, who says he sees the night raids as a critical component of his strategy.
While NATO commanders are also likely to make optimistic claims about their progress against the insurgency, they admit that it will be impossible to determine just how much of an effect the surge has had until next spring when the fighting season resumes in warmer weather.
In particular, Petraeus is likely to point to the military’s success in capturing or killing a number of mid- and senior-level officials from various militant organizations here.
What militants say
Militants, however, say that while the US and its allies may be having some success targeting their organizations, they have failed to eliminate anyone who cannot be replaced.
“The martyrdom of a commander does not affect the jihad, because we are Afghans and we are Muslims. When someone gets martyred it encourages more and more Afghans to fight against the foreigners. We just get another commander,” says Abu Bakr, a mid-level commander for Hizb-e Islami, a powerful insurgent group, in restive Kunar province. He also says that ISAF officials often exaggerate the importance of who they kill or capture.
Still, many within the insurgency say they will be watching the talks closely to see what it means for the future of the war.
“Personally, I hope they finalize the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Afghanistan. I don’t want to see any more bloodshed and innocent people killed in this country on a daily basis,” says Ihsan, a low-level Taliban commander in Kandahar.