Tuesday, 18 September 2012

NATO Afghan Strategy in Disarray

NATO strategy in Afghanistan is today in complete disarray. The path that the Alliance's leaders had mapped out towards withdrawal no longer seems at all clear, as the Alliance has announced in confused circumstances that the training and monitoring mission which is supposed to create the conditions for an end to ISAF combat missions is now restricted to large unit cooperation in major operations.

This follows the deaths of six NATO soldiers on Sunday (see report here) in green-on-blue attacks, bringing the total of NATO soldiers killed by their allies this year to over fifty. it also follows a major Taliban assault on Camp Bastion, when six harrier jump jets were destroyed, and two badly damaged. Hangars and refuelling stations were also attacked and NATO personnel, including the commander of the squadron involved, killed. (see report here)

So far, so clear. The security situation in country is not improving, and the Taliban is showing an ability to mount well coordinated attacks at a major NATO target. What followed next is extraordinary and shows the confusion within NATO.

In a statement to the House of Commons UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond said:

Our servicemen and women are doing vital work protecting the UK from the threat of international terrorism. Our strategy is clear. We are mentoring and training the Afghan army and police to deliver security to their own people. This will allow our forces first to withdraw into a support role and then to come home. The Taliban hate this strategy and seek to wreck it through insider attacks. They aim to disrupt the collaboration with Afghan forces, which is at the heart of our strategy. We cannot and will not allow the process to be derailed.Our partnering with the Afghan national security forces involves risk, but it is essential to success.
However, apparently on Sunday (at least according to the New York Times) orders were issued to NATO forces that training and mentoring will now happen at the battalion level and above. Mr Hammond appeared unaware of this, or did not see fit to report it to the House of Commons. The Afghan government was not told, and learned of the policy switch in news reports.

The New York Times reported that:
At a news conference on that trip, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said: “We are concerned with regards to these insider attacks and the impact they are having on our forces.” Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, "has reflected that in the steps that he has taken," Mr. Panetta said.
NATO has subsequently clarified that smaller unit cooperation in the field is still possible, but authorisation for such mission - even at the platoon level - will have to be given by a 2 star general. This is a major change, since platoon and company commanders have previously been able to order such missions. it will greatly hamper the ability of NATO ISAF to support their Afghan allies. The BBC World Service has reported this morning that an Afghan unit last night requested medevac after a vehicle hit an IED. US forces in the area refused the support, no doubt fearing an ambush, and a medevac they could have provided in 30 minutes took Afghan national forces 6 hours to provide. It doesn't much imagination to see that this will hit morale, and make Afghan forces much less willing to conduct combat operations and even routine patrolling.

Afghans are apparently dismayed by the change, as the New York Times reports:

Afghan soldiers were not reassured by such talk. Three interviewed as word spread Tuesday said their many of their units were not yet ready to fight alone – an assessment shared by the Pentagon — and could be in deep trouble without close coalition assistance.
The curtailment of partnered operations is “a big problem for the Afghan Army,” said Maj. Salam, an officer based in western Afghanistan who asked that he only be identified by his rank and last name. 
“We rely on the Americans for everything,” he continued. “The army is not in a level to carry out military operations independently, we still need their support. I do not buy the lies that the MOD officials are trying to sell us and the public — we are in the field and we know how difficult it would be for the army without Americans.”
This weekend may come to be seen as a major turning point. British Conservative MP Colonel Bob Stewart, famous and highly regarded for his service in the army in Bosnia, has called for UK forces to be withdrawn as soon as possible. There is no doubt that he reflects majority public opinion. NATO has lost the PR war, and while winning the tactical engagements is losing the war on the ground too.

It seems very unlikely that NATO will be able to leave behind a stable government with fully functioning security forces in control of its national territory when it leaves. So what does this mean for NATO? The destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the toppling of its Taliban ally had been accomplished a decade ago. if they can't leave a functioning government able to survive on its own after 2014, then what were the next ten years of combat for? And what future is there for NATO expeditionary missions when this one has failed so badly? How can NATO missions even be mounted when the US behaves in such a unilateral fashion and leaves its allies swinging in the wind, as Phillip Hammond now is? These are the kinds of questions that need answering today.

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