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ISAF’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Three Weeks ahead of 2012 NATO Chicago Summit)

May 1, 2012

By Sorina Ioana Crisan*

What can be said about ISAF’s transition three weeks ahead of the NATO summit? The following is a brief overview of the alliance’s withdrawal, as it relates to civilian security, current and projected ANSF capabilities, logistics behind combat troop withdrawal, and perceived problems with leaving equipment for Afghan forces, post 2014.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, November 2010:  “We will not transition until our partners are ready…We will stay to finish the job. The process must be conditions-based, not calendar-based”

These comments were made in reference to ISAF’s Afghanistan exit strategy, agreed on during the Lisbon Summit, which supports withdrawing all foreign combat troops and handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Thereafter, ISAF nations would provide Afghanistan with annual financial contributions and continue to mentor the country’s security forces.

Fast forward about 18 months and, in April 2012, during a two-day NATO Defense and Foreign Ministers’ meeting held in Brussels, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reassured the international community that:

“The transition is on track…to meet the December 2014 deadline for completing the security transition…The Afghans are increasingly standing up for their own security and future, and NATO remains united in [its] support for the Lisbon timetable, and an enduring commitment to Afghanistan.”

Mr. Rasmussen agreed,

 “There is no change whatsoever in the timeline.”

Specifics regarding ISAF’s transition were not addressed, although further details are likely to emerge after the Chicago Summit, May 20-21, 2012.  NATO members are also expected to decide on the next phase of ISAF’s transition, define NATO’s enduring relationship with Afghanistan, and make plans to ensure ANSF will be funded beyond 2014.

Even though the transition is “on track,” recent statistics and media coverage suggest that, over the next two years, ISAF will navigate its scheduled exit through a highly volatile Afghan security climate.  A recent United Nations annual report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict shows that in 2011, actions by anti-government forces resulted in Afghan civilian casualties rising for the fifth consecutive year, reaching a death toll of 3,021, an 8% increase from 2010.  Although ISAF argues that both insurgent attacks and capability are declining, assessments estimates show that by 2013, Afghanistan will still harbor about 25,000 Taliban forces, 10,000 Haqqani Network forces, and between 100 and 200 Al-Qaida forces.  The above figures emerge in a setting where about 337,000 ANSF work together with nearly 130,000 foreign troops.

It is difficult to know how the security situation will change over the next couple of years. U.S. General John Allen, ISAF’s Commander, predicts the coming year to be the most critical for the military alliance because by the end of 2013: the ANSF will reach a maximum at 352,000, the entire country “will be protected by Afghan security forces in the lead,” and thousands of combat troops will have left. Thus, the goal is that after 2014, Afghan security forces will level at about 230,000 troops, their annual funding will diminish from $7 billion to $4 billion, and they will be advised by an ISAF residual force numbering somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 troops.

General John Allen: “We want the ANSF to be in the lead. We think that is the right thing to do. It is the ultimate symbol of sovereignty of Afghanistan.”

While that is certainly true, other factors, such as: 2,983 ISAF casualties to date, a spate of unfortunate occurrences (i.e., the accidental Koran burnings, U.S. soldier’s killing spree of 16 Afghan civilians, pictures/videos depicting coalition forces engaging in inappropriate behavior, etc.), and war fatigue, are also likely to be strong contributory reasons behind ISAF and the Afghan government’s willingness to ensure  ISAF’s withdrawal unfolds as planned.

How will the combat troop withdrawal look from now until 2014? During 2012 Afghanistan will see the departure of: 22,000 U.S. troops, 1,000 French troops, 500 German troops, 500 British troops, etc. ISAF will also be in the process of removing at least 120,000 containers and 70,000 vehicles by land, through the country’s northern neighbors. Germany’s military alone, the third largest TCN, is expected to reclaim approximately 6,000 containers of material, 500 non-armored vehicles, and more than 1,700 vehicles, howitzers, and tanks. With a military intervention lasting over a decade, facilitating a smooth exit is a logistically complex undertaking, which requires a large number of specialists. The German Defense Ministry stated that between 250 and 600 soldiers are needed to help move its equipment and troops. The U.S., with currently 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, and much more gear to move than Germany, has assigned 4,000 logistics experts.

It is currently unknown what exactly ISAF will leave in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Press releases and media reports show that even though TCNs aim to withdraw all combat troops, they plan to support Afghanistan for at least ten more years with monetary contributions and personnel tasked to further train and advise Afghan forces. The Defense Ministry in Kabul has stated that it wants to keep equipment such as howitzers and helicopters,

Afghan MOD: “The more material we get, especially for operations from the air, the faster we can take over additional areas from ISAF.”

But leaving equipment is tricky. Bundeswehr officials have said that equipment left behind must comply with arms export guidelines,“You can’t just turn over armored personnel carriers like expired drugs. They need maintenance and upkeep.” They further argue that Afghans were not trained to operate the heavy equipment.

Senior German official: “I don’t want to know who the German gun barrels could end up being pointed at”

In conclusion, there is no big “victorious” ending in sight, but both the Afghanistan government and ISAF appear more than ready to wind down a decade-long tumultuous relationship. As TCNs leave, the ability of the Afghan police and army to demonstrate that it can provide security throughout the country beyond 2014 is essential. The ANSF response to the April 15th coordinated insurgent attacks, in Kabul and three other provinces, received large media coverage and a variety of upbeat interpretations. Instead of arguing how even the occurrence of such an event suggest intelligence failings, I will choose to highlight that, in the days after the event, many young Afghans replaced their Facebook profile pictures with that of Hamidullah Zaker, a 24-year-old Afghan member of the Crisis Response Unit, photographed covered by blood while confidently leaving the combat zone.  The image of Zaker may, in some small part, come to represent Afghan aspirations following the end of ISAF’s intervention.

*Sorina Ioana Crisan is currently a research intern with Lund University Center for Middle Eastern Studies.  She has a dual MA from Boston University in International Relations (Security Studies with focus on current U.S./German intervention in Afghanistan) and International Communications.  She has completed internships with Jane’s Defence Weekly and the Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C. and has written articles for JDW and Tom Rick’s Best Defense Blog.   Contact her at:

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