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“2014”: Panetta, the ANA and, er, Ryanair

February 4, 2012

To many different audiences, the year 2014 is building up in their minds as a big, solid, tangible event where on 31st Dec of that year, all the ISAF troops pile on to their aircraft and depart Afghanistan.  But the process of closing down is pretty much underway now, I would guess – national, international and ISAF planning groups all over are starting to work out what to do with all their equipment, supplies and contracts.  While I was at ISAF HQ last year, a senior British military officer explained very convincingly the lengthy, complex and expensive process of closing down a big military operation such as ISAF.  So, stuff is happening already to close down in 2014.  But, in addition, stuff will be happening now to ensure that lots of international military stuff will still be happening beyond 2014 (I am thinking trainers, special forces, intelligence assets, logistics and air support…).  So it might perhaps be best to imagine “2014” as a big amorphous grey area that started in 2010 and will probably go on until 2020, or thereabouts.*

ANA recruits board an ISAF C-130

The Economist (“America’s retreat from Afghanistan”. “Outta here” and “the United States rushes for the exit” – all in the same issue!) and many other media outlets make much of Leon Panetta’s comments in Brussels on 1st February, specifically the notion that the US is now planning to pull out of Afghanistan much sooner than expected.   Try as I might, I can’t help thinking that this interpretation is wrong.  It seems a little bit like the (mis)interpretation of former British Defence Minister, John Reid’s perhaps most famous statement in relation to Afghanistan.  It is one thing to hope you do not have to fire a shot when UK troops deploy to Helmand, it is quite another to categorically state that no shots will be fired.  If Mr Panetta has made a mistake, it is probably that he has uttered a statement on a very sensitive issue, at a very sensitive time, that is not 100% black and white and that many stakeholders are very sensitive about.  Interpretations of what he said are now flying around all over.

But of course it might well be a floated idea that the US is contemplating an earlier withdrawal – the “Ryanair school of grand strategy”, where they drop a provocative idea casually into the conversation (e.g. “lets charge people to use the toilet on our flights”) and monitor the extent of the backlash before they backtrack.  I’m sure many European nations would, as the Economist puts it “be only too happy to head for an early bath”.

But as far as I can see – and according to the Economist – Mr Panetta has said: “that he now hoped American troops in Afghanistan would be able to withdraw from a combat to an ‘enabling’ role soon after the middle of next year”.  This is probably not about pulling out troops in 2013, but about finding ways of grooming the (very) fledgling Afghan National Army to stand on its own feet while reducing the risks to US forces inside Afghanistan.   In fact, allowing more time and space to allow the ANA to learn to operate independently is almost certainly somewhere between a good idea and an absolutely essential one.   As I suggested earlier, 2014 will almost certainly not be the end of international military forces in Afghanistan anyway.  I suspect there will be just enough trainers, special forces and combat aircraft to continue provoking the Taliban and their co-insurgents to Jihad.

Nevertheless, on the progress of the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP), I would suggest strongly that progress has historically been very flawed and the prospects still do not look good.  There is far too much emphasis on quantity over quality.  An expensive “Iron Mountain” of equipment (all requiring maintenance and skilled operators, presumably) is still to be issued.  To me, the most disturbing comment from Mr Panetta is the idea that the expansionist plans for the ANA (that many analysts thought were unrealistic) may not be affordable in the long run.  Funny that.  It seems that even before that target of 352,000 troops is reached, knives are being sharpened to trim back the Afghan military.  It seems harsh on the Afghan government to have all their hopes built up until right at the end.  Perhaps if such an army size has been promised to the Afghan government, it should have at least come with plans for five years of guaranteed funding (and fighting) before it is reassessed for value for money?

Hmmm, I wonder what trade might be available in 2015 for thousands of unemployed, disgruntled but well-trained Afghan fighters…

*I apologise for the use of the word “stuff” in an analytical piece.  In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it.

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