(CSM) With an eye to withdrawing their combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, NATO leaders Monday approved a US-promoted plan to shift the command of combat operations to Afghan forces by mid-2013.
The shift, part of what President Obama called a “phased transition … to responsibly bring this war to an end,” is another step in the NATO alliance’s withdrawal from a fighting role in the decade-long Afghanistan war.
While the end of the Afghan war may be on the horizon for US and other international troops, that does not mean the conflict will be over in two years, regional experts say. The Taliban will remain a fighting force, they say, and the fundamental question of Afghanistan’s stability is likely to be just as uncertain then as it is today.
"This will not mark the end of Afghanistan's challenges, obviously," Mr. Obama said of the plan adopted at the summit to "transition" out of the Afghan war. But he said it is a plan for "helping the Afghans to stand on their own."
The handover of operations command to the Afghans by the middle of next year is a sign that the 28-nation alliance is accelerating its drawdown from Afghanistan, say some regional experts – particularly as NATO faces pressure from countries, like France, that have announced plans to step up their troop withdrawals.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen rebuffed those charges at a summit-closing press conference, saying the 2013 transition to Afghan command “does not represent an accelerated road map.”
He also cautioned that it does not mean the International Security Assistance Forces will cease to participate in combat operations – a point the White House also emphasized in a statement.
US and other international forces “will continue to conduct combat operations as necessary through the end of 2014,” the statement notes. Still, “after the mid-2013 milestone,” it continues, international forces “will continue to evolve to reflect the new primary focus on training, advising, and assisting” the Afghan security forces.
Mr. Rasmussen said next year’s transfer of operational command to the Afghans would be a crucial step in reaching the December 2014 deadline for ending NATO’s combat role smoothly and successfully. “It takes usually 12 to 18 months to actively implement a transition,” he said.
Military experts say the shift to Afghan command next year makes sense because it will give the US and other NATO officers time to mentor their Afghan counterparts on combat command while they are still on the ground in sufficient numbers.
Rasmussen said the transition plan for ending NATO’s combat role by the end of 2014 and then shifting to a training and assistance role “sends a strong signal to the people of Afghanistan, the neighbors of Afghanistan, and indeed, to the enemies of Afghanistan” that the world would remain engaged even as the war effort ends.
Citing a “global commitment” to stability in Afghanistan, Rasmussen said the international community is “on track” to reach the goal of providing the Afghan security forces about $4 billion in annual funding.
The $4 billion figure is based on a NATO “planning assumption” that foresees supporting an army and a national police force of about 230,000 personnel in the years after 2014.
Earlier plans called for maintaining the current level of about 350,000 forces, at a cost to the international community of about $6.5 billion a year. But figures have been revised downward as NATO planners realized that international support at the higher level was unlikely.
In a statement, the White House says a “preliminary model” envisions a “conditions-based” drawdown of Afghan security forces to 228,500 by 2017, at an annual cost to the international community of $4.1 billion a year.
The Afghan government pledges to commit at least $500 million a year to fund its forces, the White House says.
Rasmussen said it is true that the 230,000 figure “has been mentioned,” but he added that no decision has been made. The numbers for the years after 2014 will be based largely on two factors, he said: “the security situation on the ground, and the quality and capability” of the Afghan security forces.
“Probably we will not need 350,000 in the longer term,” he said, adding that he bases his view on assumptions that Afghan security forces will make gains in “quality and capability,” and that they will be able to score sustained improvements in Afghanistan security.
Obama, during a press conference in Chicago on Monday, also addressed the ongoing US standoff with Pakistan, which has closed NATO supply routes into Afghanistan in retaliation for NATO airstrikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost. The alliance wants them reopened; Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has insisted upon a formal US apology first.Obama refused to schedule a meeting with Mr. Zardari over the transit route dispute, but he acknowledged having a "very brief" chat with the Pakistani leader on the margins of the Afghanistan meeting. He said he told Zardari, "We need to work through some of the tensions that have understandably arisen after 10 years of our military presence in the region." He also said the US and Pakistan were making "diligent progress" on resolving the border-crossings problem.