Reflections on Chicago
By Tim Foxley
It seems quite easy to criticise the proceedings of the Chicago NATO summit, but really, I’m not sure what else we should have expected from it? There were never going to be any particular surprises. The French early withdrawal was more or less expected and unblinkingly smoothed into an “all part of the plan” message. Pakistan’s President Zardari producing a transport deal in which NATO did not have its face rubbed in the dirt would have been a “nice to have”. But neither of these were crucial to the key message that was always going to come out the event – that NATO – and ISAF, by implication – will have “irreversibly” withdrawn its fighting troops from Afghanistan by 2014 and the Afghan government will have full responsibility for the defence of its nation.
Chicago was never going to be a “what the hell do we do now?” type of affair. Plans, intentions and media lines were, of course, worked out well in advance (primarily at Brussels). And, to be fair, given the stark reality of the situation facing Afghanistan, the last thing a NATO conference wants to do is to send out a message of confusion, uncertainty and disagreement (even if there is confusion, uncertainty and disagreement). This would only make things a lot worse, giving encouragement to the Taliban and causing further concern to the peoples of Afghanistan. NATO has to sound confident and engaged right to the last minute, even if it is tired, fed-up and frustrated, otherwise there would definitely be an element of “self-fulfilling prophecy” introduced to the proceedings. No one in NATO is ever going to admit to “failure”, but again, no one is (hopefully) ever going to trot out “failure is not an option”.
Bringing forward the dates by which NATO forces cease combat operations and take a mentoring and supporting role to the ANSF makes sense if the 2014 deadline is “irreversible”; better for the ANSF to try to walk with help and make all the mistakes now than wait until December 2014 to find it falls flat on its face. Nevertheless, it would perhaps not be unreasonable to expect some additional elements of NATO contingency planning involving a range of combat and training options. As I think I said in a previous blog, it might be more sensible to have a few bright ideas and resources set aside in the event that the ANSF (and indeed the Afghan government) is less able to perform than is currently hoped as we move into 2015 and 2016.
The irreversible future
And yet, what does irreversible mean? One of the biggest issues unaddressed, because, post-2014, it will not in fact be an ISAF or NATO issue, is the number and likely status of Western uniformed personal remaining inside Afghanistan (or operating from bases outside Afghanistan but with an operating remit in the country).
What comes next? The brand names of NATO, ISAF and OEF will surely vanish. This would permit a clean sheet of a range of US/UK/other hangers-on training and strike options to be set up, perhaps under a nice bland and anonymous heading of some form of “Training and Advisory Mission”. The potential number of “rebadged” Western/US soldiers to remain post-2014 will not be known – perhaps for a year or two – but figures bandied (I know “bandied” is not an officially accepted analytical tool) around go from a few thousand up to (oh, please no) 40,000. Ahmed Rashid convincingly suggests that you can have US military bases in Afghanistan or you can have peace talks with the Taliban, but you can’t have both.
Thinking wider than NATO@Chicago, many important stakeholders, inside and outside Afghanistan, are still unheard – some because they are intimidated and powerless, others because they are ducking their responsibilities and others because they can only see as far as their own vested interests. I put the Afghan “civil society” in the former group, the UN and the EU in the second and neighbouring countries and large elements of Afghan powerbroker society into the latter. I sometimes feel that NATO/ISAF drifted into trying to do everything – military, politics, governance, development, anti-narcotics, anti-corruption, hearts and minds, reconstruction, purely because there was little other option. All the other groups who could have taken things forward were either reluctant, incapable, or both.
Bang some political heads together – this is serious
All we hear about is the military transition, but you could argue that at least NATO is actually doing something – if we accept for a minute that it can’t stay there indefinitely and it can’t leave tomorrow. NATO can’t fix the politics. Think about this: wouldn’t it be incredibly heartening and valuable if the UN (years of Afghan and negotiating experience), the Afghan government, political opposition leaders, parliament and the country’s civil society started having some seriously urgent crisis meetings to start getting engaged with the future of the country? The government and the opposition could start having discussions to get to grips with this – they both lose out if the Taliban destabilise everything. Perhaps the next election could become an anti-Taliban referendum?
The Afghans show no competence or appetite for leading the country towards “Afghan-led” solutions. No one is taking the initiative – when are we going to start hearing something from the UN?