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Afghanistan beyond ISAF: New international missions and shifting support actors

June 9, 2012

By Sorina Ioana Crisan* 

Summary: As Western combat troops prepare to leave the Afghan theatre, some ISAF members and Asian regional players are stepping up their roles to (1) achieve previously strived for goals of “a stable, peaceful and self-reliant Afghanistan,” and (2) maintain or gain influence in the region.  The following is a look at: some actions undertaken by Afghanistan to insure long-term foreign military and financial support; the new NATO-Afghanistan mission; and the decision of some ISAF members to prolong (or wind down) their role in Afghanistan, past the highly anticipated military withdrawal.

Karzai at Chicago

On May 20, 2012, during the NATO summit in Chicago, President Hamid Karzai stated:

 “Afghanistan is fully aware of the task ahead and of what Afghanistan needs to do to reach the objectives that we all have of a stable, peaceful and self-reliant Afghanistan.”

With ISAF’s Afghanistan combat mission coming to an end, over the past months the Karzai government has recourse to signing several strategic partnership agreements, with countries such as: the United States, India and the United Kingdom. These partnerships have been defined by one Afghan official as “insurance cover” to ultimately be used after ISAF’s 2014 scheduled departure. They assure that Afghanistan will benefit from foreign support for years to come and, in particular, will be intended to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will not be left to slowly disintegrate, while striving to provide security throughout the entire country.

At the same time, as Western nations direct their combat troops within a highly anticipated exit strategy, regional players, such as China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia appear to be deepening their ties with Afghanistan. Sanjeev Miglani, a Reuters Specialist Editor, notes:

 “As the U.S.-led coalition winds up military engagement and hands over security to local forces, Beijing, along with regional powers, is gradually stepping up involvement in an area that remains at risk from being overrun by Islamist insurgents…

 China and Afghanistan will announce a plan in the coming days to deepen their ties…the strongest signal yet that Beijing wants a role beyond economic partnership as Western forces prepare to leave the country.”

Andrew Small, transatlantic fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), believes that it is highly likely that China might directly train Afghan soldiers beyond 2014. China is “concerned that [once ISAF leaves] there is going to be a security vacuum and they’re concerned about how the neighbors will behave,” argues Small.

But another pertinent question is: To what extent is the ISAF alliance actually “withdrawing” from Afghanistan? During last month’s summit, NATO allies committed to an “irreversible” plan to withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan. According to U.S. President Barack Obama, NATO leaders now have “a clear road map” that will help bring the Afghanistan war to a “responsible end.” In short, the plan calls for Afghan forces to take over all security responsibilities in 2013 and for foreign combat forces to leave Afghanistan by the end of the following year.

Beyond 2014, NATO’s investment in Afghanistan is expected to continue and it will take two major routes. First, Afghan security forces will receive a monetary support of $4.1 billion per year, from ISAF allies, to make sure it can continue to finance an army crafted throughout the 10-year long foreign intervention. Second, NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argues that, post-2014, Afghanistan will not be left completely unassisted militarily (or better said, unsupervised closely by western nations): “A new and different NATO mission will advise, train and assist the expected 350,000-strong Afghanistan force.” On June 4, 2012, during NATO’s monthly press briefing, Rasmussen stated that NATO and the Afghan government started to work towards establishing a new international NATO mission in Afghanistan, for the period after the transition. He states that this will not be a combat mission, but a support-based one. As of yet, specifics about this mission are unknown.

The new NATO mission is not a sudden undertaking. On May 20, 2012, President Obama stressed the alliance’s “commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan,” post-2014:

“NATO Summit is going to be largely devoted to ratifying and reflecting the broad consensus that so many of our partners and ISAF members have agreed to — one in which we are working with the Afghans over the next several years to achieve a complete transition to Afghan lead for Afghan security; one in which we continue to provide support for the Afghan National Security Forces that have made excellent progress over the last several years; and also painting a vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.”

The U.S. commitment to a long-term partnership with Afghanistan was made official on May 1, 2012, when the two counties signed an Enduring Strategic Partnership. This agreement has been criticized precisely because it “commits Afghanistan to providing U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond.” Gareth Porter, journalist and U.S. foreign and military policy analyst, argues that the Enduring Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan and the Memorandums of Understanding will not end the war in Afghanistan, because it will continue to allow U.S. Special Operation Forces to carry out unilateral night raids on private homes.

President Obama described the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership, as part of a “shared vision that we have in which Afghanistan is able to transition from decades of war to a transformational decade of peace and stability and development.” A White House press release highlighted:

 “When it comes to an enduring U.S. presence, President Obama has been clear:  we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Instead, the Strategic Partnership Agreement commits Afghanistan to provide U.S. personnel access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014 and beyond. The Agreement provides for the possibility of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda, and commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement to supersede our current Status of Forces Agreement.”

Even though the U.S. pledged to continue providing financial assistance and to maintain forces in Afghanistan, beyond the 2014-scheduled retreat of combat troops it is unclear what the size of the support forces will be, what their precise role will be, where they will be located, and for how long they might be stationed there. Clarification on most of these issues might emerge once a Bilateral Security Agreement is negotiated between the two countries, the date of that is still to be determined. It is most likely to take place after U.S. presidential elections, this November.

In parallel, as several nations take steps towards maintaining or increasing their role in Afghanistan, beyond ISAF’s withdrawal, others are pursuing the opposite. For example, the new French President François Hollande informed President Obama that French troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by December 31, two years ahead of NATO’s 2014 scheduled exit, but that it will continue to support the ISAF mission in other ways.

“I recalled to President Obama that I had made a promise to withdraw our combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2012…I also stipulated that there would still be support in another form.”

On May 21, 2012, New Zealand also announced that it will withdraw its 140 troops by the end of 2013, as they consider their work in Afghanistan to be completed. Similarly, Canada declared it would extract its 950 troops by the end of 2014, but that it would continue to provide financial support to the Afghan military ($110 million per year), for the next three years.

In conclusion, there are few details to suggest what any new international NATO-Afghanistan mission might look like, in terms of size and troop placement, type of equipment they will use, or the exact nature of the forces that will further train and assist the ANSF.  In this environment, the Karzai administration has been busy making sure the international community will continue to provide assistance, by signing several partnerships. It seems to be the case that, as ISAF combat troops “officially” exit the Afghan terrain, there is no shortage of old and new actors eager and willing to fill in Afghanistan “support role” positions, for years to come.


*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:

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anna M. Calabria permalink
    July 18, 2012 3:02 pm

    Once again, a clear, intelligent and unbiased article.
    Also, happy to read that other China will be involved in this process.

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