BY KELLY GUSTAFSON
The “in together, out together” approach that has guided NATO’s decade-plus Afghanistan operations will encounter a serious test at the summit in Chicago, with some experts suggesting the alliance’s response to two issues is likely to set a defining organizational tone and global public perception.
The first issue: How does NATO effectively complete its withdrawal and return ownership to Afghans, while dealing with insurgent attacks, a corrupt government, and a significantly illiterate population? Add to that question the need to step up the training of both police and military, the alliance members’ deepening economic stress, and some members’ plans to leave before the all-gone-by-the-end-of-2014 agreement dictates.
The second: How will NATO members financially support Afghans as they attempt to stabilize their society, sustain an infrastructure, and establish effective institutions to make the slow transition to becoming a decentralized democracy. How will that cost be apportioned?
Crafting a framework that spells out the alliance’s long-term strategy and commitment to Afghanistan may be the summit’s main piece of business. How it’s handled and what results could shape some important intra-NATO relationships, as well as the alliance’s continued role and influence in the strategically critical, resource-rich country.
Drawing down the 130,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan will require major diplomatic efforts, both regionally and internationally, so that a burden does not fall on the untested Afghan military.
Some countries, such as France, have already announced plans to pull out earlier because of Europe’s harsh economic realities.
Leaving Afghanistan, even after more than a decade of occupation, carries the risk that NATO is withdrawing too soon.
NATO’s current policy emphasizes security progress, not governance, said Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Although progress has been made in handing responsibility to the Afghan military, Biddle said, it is unreasonable to expect it to do more than sustain a stalemate against insurgents.
The summit will likely produce a timetable among the countries for NATO to serve as a coordinating governing body as well as a robust training and equipping program, said Nathaniel Bailey, who led intelligence policy for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
“NATO can and should be a continued partner for security and stability, but can do so in a creative way that also makes political sense,” Bailey said.
Bailey, cautioning his comments don’t reflect U.S. government policy, said without the money for large combat operations, NATO’s continued presence will likely focus on training and equipping Afghan forces.
One creative program could bring Afghans to training academies in member countries and train “an elite core that understands democracy and Western values,” Bailey said. One hurdle in transferring governance and military powers is educating a mostly illiterate society.
“We’ve got to teach these guys how to read and write, along with how to counter insurgent operations,” he said.
Assuming the alliance cannot support a longer-term special-operations force in Afghanistan as the U.S. would prefer, NATO will continue in a supporting role – requiring billions of dollars.
Some estimate the Afghan government and military will need about $4 billion in aid from foreign countries annually. President Hamid Karzai asks the U.S. pledge half the total.
So far, only Britain has publicly pledged cash post-2014, with contributions of $110 million.
The summit will offer the first glimpse of NATO’s future role, Bailey said, and how Afghanistan, as the alliance’s largest combat operation, morphed it into a military force that can intervene beyond its North Atlantic sphere.
“NATO is not only going to become a guaranteer of freedom for territorial sovereign states, but also a global organization,” Bailey said.