In Afghanistan, NATO exit plan raises concerns about stability

NATO plans to transition security control to Afghan forces over the next two years, but many Afghans question their ability to hold the gains that have been made.

Omar Sobhani/REUTERS
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers prepare for a patrol outside the village of But Khak on the outskirts of Kabul May 15.

NATO leaders are expected to endorse a plan on the final day of the Chicago summit today that will bring international combat operations in Afghanistan to an end next summer and have all combat troops out of the country by the end of 2014.

In Afghanistan, news of the NATO summit’s upcoming transition plan is not a surprise for most locals. International troops have already begun handing over parts of the country to Afghan security forces, and the 2014-deadline has long been a part of the public discourse.

Still, for many Afghans, the plan highlights a major concern about the capability of Afghan security forces: If local forces are not ready to take full control and hold stability, the gains made during the past decade could be lost.

“Right now, these security forces do not have any commitment to the sovereignty of the country and they are not fully professional,” says Abdul Rahman Shaheed, a member of parliament from Bamiyan Province and a former police major.

“It will be very hard to maintain the current security after this transition plan is implemented,” Mr. Rahman says. “I think there will be more negative results if [security handover to Afghan troops] happens next year, because right now, the Afghan government does not have any clear security strategy for the country.”

Low number of Afghan-led battalions that score well

Only 42 percent of operations are now Afghan-led, according to Gen. John Allen, the top commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Of the 156 Afghan Army battalions, a recent US Department of Defense report classified only 13 as “independent with advisers” and 74 as “effective with advisers.”

In Chicago, Allen stressed that American and NATO soldiers would not be completely removed from combat after the transition next summer, with some remaining available until the 2014 deadline. Afghan forces will be able to call on international combat forces for assistance if they feel it is necessary, and NATO troops will continue to provide training.

Afghan security forces have been responsible for Kabul since 2008. During recent attacks in the capital city, local forces relied on their international counterparts only for advanced assistance, such as helicopter air support. In rural areas, which traditionally see most of Afghanistan’s fighting, Afghans may lean more heavily on international forces after next summer than they have in Kabul.

“I think now Afghans’ view of their security forces is shifting toward a positive light,” says Babrak Shinwari, political analyst and former member of parliament from Nangarhar. “There is still enough time to implement this transition plan if the Afghan government remains committed to its slogan of good governance and reform.”

Mr. Shinwari, like many other Afghans, also expressed concern about regional interference. Iran and Pakistan have long been accused of meddling inside Afghanistan.

Insurgents are also said to rely on the tribal areas of Pakistan as a haven. If a treaty could be drawn up to guarantee no interference from Afghanistan’s neighbors, along with reform in the security forces to target corruption and nepotism, Shinwari says he would have no concerns about the ability of the security forces to take over next summer.

The women are watching

Afghan women have also been watching the Chicago NATO Summit closely. They will be depending on Afghan security forces to create enough stability to maintain the gains they’ve attained over the past decade, such as more educational opportunities for girls.

“Even during this situation when there is huge international involvement, Afghan women live under big threats. They are facing abuse, kidnapping, and all sorts of illegal activities,” says Suraya Parlika, a women’s rights activist. “This is our major concern: that if things get worse after 2014, the Afghan women will suffer more.”

With much of the political debate about security settled, it will likely take time to see if these plans work.

Now, many Afghans are turning their attention to the next major international conference this July at the Tokyo Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, where donors are expected to determine how much financial assistance the country will receive after 2014. Presently, nearly three-quarters of the country's GDP depends on foreign assistance.

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