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Following much speculation that NATO members convening in Lisbon today would announce the end of combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014, it now appears that they will also announce plans to have a footprint in the country long beyond that.
Under the new plan, NATO-led forces will hand over control of the country province-by-province to the Afghan Army and Police by 2014. The conditions based timeline has US and other international forces remaining in Afghanistan long into the future.
Although President Barack Obama had initially run his presidential campaign on turning around the war in Afghanistan, The Los Angeles Times reports that this is the first time he has acknowledged that doing so will take years. Military officials have long suggested that victory in Afghanistan will take time, but until now President Obama has not publicly supported such a plan.
For military strategists, the increased window of time is likely to come as welcome news and a potential game changer for the overall war effort.
“The clock on Afghanistan has had quite a bit more time added to it, and that provides a lot more pressure on the Taliban psychologically and it will physically,” says Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.), former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“The Taliban believe that they’re winning on the scoreboard and it’s the fourth quarter of the football game and that they’re going to be the last man standing when the clock runs out and that’s going to be in July of next year. All of the sudden now there’s a new quarter added onto the football game and that’s going to have a very significant impact.”
Still, for the Taliban, who have said they are making gains against foreign forces, they are unlikely to show any public dismay over the news. In Kandahar, the focus of the troop surge, Taliban officials say that they were initially affected by the increased military presence, but they adapted by hiding during major clearing operations and stationing troops in their hometowns so they wouldn’t the increased number of check points wouldn’t be a problem.
“The increase in operations by the foreigners can’t have any effect on us, because if they kill one of our big commanders, we are like the hard stones and each Taliban is harder than the next. If they kill one, we will get another who is even stronger than the other ones,” says Ihsan, who commands about 15 Taliban fighters in Kandahar.
He adds that he has mixed feelings about the departure of foreign forces. “If the foreign forces decide to leave Afghanistan, at least it will help the foreign forces to take their soldiers out without losing any more lives, but I will be disgraced by this decision because I won’t have the chance to get martyrdom in the fight against the foreigners.”
As Obama prepares the US for a long-term commitment in Afghanistan, he must also convince NATO allies to continue their support over the coming years. As in the US, many member states supporting the war effort face a war wary public at home who increasingly disapproves of the war. Additionally, though many nations will continue to support the mission in Afghanistan with troops, they are only deploying their forces in noncombat roles, leaving the US and the British to do most of the fighting, reports CNN.
In large part, the handover strategy will depend on the ability of NATO and their Afghan counterparts to adequately train 134,000 Afghan police officers and 170,000 soldiers within the next year, reports Russia’s RTT News. To date, most Afghans do not trust their security forces, which are widely seen as corrupt and incapable of resisting anti-government forces like the Taliban without the support of foreign troops.
During the two-day NATO summit, which will also address the organization’s overall strategy for dealing with the threats of the 21st century, officials are expected to admit to making mistakes in Afghanistan. However, they are likely to emphasize that they have learned from these mistakes and are ready to face the challenges ahead.
“I think that, seen retrospectively, we underestimated the challenge and our operation in Afghanistan didn't have sufficient resources, and yes, that was a mistake,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a report by Britain’s Sky News.
Over the course of the last week, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has been increasingly standoffish with NATO forces. In an interview with the Washington Post last weekend, he called on international troops to reduce military operations and stop their controversial night raids. His remarks created a public dispute between him and top military commander General David Petraeus.
However, it now appears that Karzai is ready to make amends with NATO officials. During the Lisbon summit he is expected to meet privately with a number of top officials from various member states. Additionally, the Pajhwok Afghan News service reports that Karzai will give an address to the summit in which he will “highlight the Afghan government’s strategy and proposals aimed at an enduring cooperation with NATO member states.”