By Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking
This week, NATO leaders will gather in Wales for the 2014 NATO summit—arguably the most important since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The crisis in Ukraine and the growing challenge from ISIS are sure to dominate the agenda. But as menacing as these threats are, NATO leaders should not forget about Afghanistan, where NATO’s International Stability Assistance Force (ISAF) is struggling to bring this thirteen-year war to an end. As our experience in Iraq should make abundantly clear, the pace and manner by which international troops (and aid dollars) withdraw and the durability of NATO’s commitment to the region will greatly influence what comes afterward.
The rise of ISIS across Syria and Iraq has settled the question of whether the Iraqi government was willing, ready, or capable of securing the peace following the withdrawal of coalition troops and advisers. It could not. The question now becomes whether Afghanistan might follow a similar path—and what actions NATO can take now to save it.
NATO is on track with a swift drawdown. By the end of 2014, 9,800 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan. They will be focused primarily on Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) training and capacity building, as well as limited counterterrorism operations. By the end of 2015, this number will be halved, and the U.S. will transition to a normal embassy presence beyond 2016. Consequently, as the American presence shrinks, the force contribution from coalition nations will grow increasingly critical. Currently, 4,000 troops from other NATO nations are expected to stay past 2014. Yet, if current Afghan political instability persists, this entire plan could be turned on its head.
Recent news from Afghanistan has been alarming. The results of the Afghan presidential election have been mired in controversy, with both contenders claiming victory. Candidate Abdullah Abdullah has accused his rival, Ashraf Ghani, of fraud. An internationally brokered compromise, in which the United Nations has been auditing the ballots, abruptly collapsed on August 27. As the Economist observes, the ongoing political crisis has had terrible consequences for the ongoing fight against the Taliban:
Meanwhile the election is taking a serious toll on the country. With the government’s attention diverted away from the provinces, the Taliban are testing Afghan security forces with their biggest attacks in years. The economy has ground to a halt. In a recent interview with the BBC, the finance minister said these elections have already cost Afghanistan a devastating $5 billion in lost foreign investment and revenue. Prices of basic foods are rising and the government will soon have to lay off workers.
In light of the events that followed the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, this is an eerily familiar political path. With reduced international force presence and aid, the violence has also seen an upward tick as the Taliban regains momentum. There was even a suggestion made this week by a militant Islamic group allied with the Taliban that they will begin linking their efforts to those of the Islamic State. The lesson is clear: while the NATO commitment to Afghanistan will be sharply reduced at the end of 2014, the war is far from over, and spillover is a real threat.
NATO must take the opportunity now, at this critical moment, to reexamine the current status and long-term planning of the Afghan drawdown. The ANSF will be battling the Taliban and affiliates for many years to come. The outcome of this conflict will have a significant impact on the region—as well as the United States and its NATO allies.
The Islamic State was spawned from the chaos that was allowed to form in the wake of the coalition withdrawal from Iraq. This should not also happen in Afghanistan.
Editor’s Note: This post originally misstated the pace of planned U.S. force drawdown in Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. will not transition to a normal embassy posture until beyond 2016. This error has been corrected.