Despite much of the media coverage recently that suggested America and its Western allies would largely leave by the end of 2014, Thomas Ruttig from The Afghanistan Analysts Network – I spent time with this valuable NGO while in Kabul in April – offers the reality:
When President Barack Obama stated at last weekend’s NATO summit in his hometown Chicago that the Afghan war ‘as we know it’ will be over in two years, some media only got half of it. And they are spreading a truncated message in their headlines that will stick in readers’ minds: War will be over then. ‘The countdown to Afghanistan withdrawal begins’says ITV News; USA Today sees the Afghanistan war heading to a ‘messy ending’, but an ending, nevertheless. Deutsche Welle, the foreign office-financed, official German broadcaster for the world even titles, completely ignoring reality: ‘NATO to quit Afghanistan in 2014’. Moreover, they already start discussing the logistics of what in fact is only a partial withdrawal, or ‘drawdown’, as if there were no more pressing issues: through Pakistan? through Uzbekistan? ‘Pakistan wants USD 5,000 per container!’
Unfortunately for Afghans, the AFP called them the ‘NATO summit’s forgotten people’ very properly, the stress in Obama statement is on ‘as we know it’, not on ‘over’. Neither will war be over around Christmas 2014 nor will the last Western troops have left Afghanistan by then.
Yes, a lot will change in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. ISAF with its logo ‘kumak wa/au hamkari’ will disappear from what the military calls the Afghan ‘theatre’. (‘Arena’ would be more to the point). Most combat troops will be withdrawn indeed. Afghan forces, and the Afghan government, will be in the lead and responsible, which is not a bad thing, as long as they hold together.
But NATO won’t leave. There will be another NATO mission, starting in 2015, under a training-and-mentoring label, as in Iraq. President Hamed Karzai called it a ‘training, advising and assistance mission’ in his Chicago speech. It probably will not be really small, either. Media reports from the Chicago summit were talking about somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 soldiers, trainers, mentors and other soldiers to protect them.(1)
Additionally, the new NATO mission will be accompanied by another one composed of US and other countries’ Special Operations Forces (SOF)(2) and even more special CIA operators (see earlier reporting about this here and here). US media reports expect something in the range of 6,000 SOF and ‘other agencies’ staff. They will continue to focus on what the US government and military see as their most effective means against the insurgents, night raids and kill-and-capture operations, even after they now need the approval of the Afghan government. That the US seems to attempt to keep control over high-value prisoners at Bagram (possibly including those snatched in future operations) – see our latest blog about this issue – fits into this picture.
The new mission will be smaller and less visible. The war as we know it, will morph from a counterinsurgency/counter-terrorism war (the experts are even undecided about what of both) that is still based on conventional forces mainly, at least when it comes to quantity, to a ‘special operations’ war.
As it has been attempted in Iraq, this is supposed to get Afghanistan off the front pages and out of voters’ minds, whose support has been ‘tumbling to all-time lows’ even in the US, as The Hillblog from Washington DC put it. With a smaller and less visible mission, there will be less embedded reporting and less media-accompanied trips of politicians and, given the low number of permanent correspondents on the ground, less reporting at all about Afghanistan. At the same time, Afghan journalists ring the alarm bell that western funding for them is drying out and threatens to close one of the last channels through which information on the country still could get through.