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NATO pullout from Afghanistan: when and how? - 17.5.2010
Natalya Burlinova

NATO pullout from Afghanistan: when and how?

By Natalya Burlinova, political scientist and author and presenter of international politics radio programmes

The April meeting of the NATO foreign Ministers in the Estonian capital has reconfirmed that the alliance is determined to pursue a policy of Afghanization of the country’s security, the gradual handing over of the responsibility for guaranteeing security to the Afghan army, police and special services. This will be done gradually. The possibility of handing over responsibility in each province will be decided individually. To this end, International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan will focus on training Afghan national security forces, army and police, which will ultimately take the responsibility for security in the country into their hands.

However, handing over the responsibility to Afghans doesn’t mean that NATO will leave Afghanistan immediately, although the alliance, according to its Secretary General, has no plans to stay in the country forever. Really, NATO has no alternative either in short-term or long-term perspective. None of the international or regional organizations is ready to assume a key role since they have no greater functional and military potential than NATO.

However, logically, the alliance will have to leave Afghanistan sooner or later. NATO Secretary General, for one, refuses to fix a date when this will happen and insists that in this case, much depend on the developments rather than a timetable. NATO will leave the country when it is hundred percent sure that the Afghan army and the police are ready to maintain law and order in the country.

Consequently, the prospects of NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan are obscure. The Afghan army’s readiness to resist the Taliban after the withdrawal of NATO and the U.S. from the country remains a question. It’s unclear whether the NATO officials are overestimating the Afghan army’s desire to fight. Even the planned increase in the number of troops and police officers by the end of 2011 will hardly help the central government to maintain law and order in the country independently. Technically equipping the Afghan national army and improving the combat readiness of soldiers and officers remain to be serious issues. Another important problem is the ideological orientation of Afghan soldiers and police officers since it has become a norm that many of them covertly cooperate with the Taliban. Even if the Afghan army is brought up to full strength and is ready to fight against enemies, it will be unrealistic to destroy the Taliban completely. The Taliban will remain if not in Afghanistan, but in the neighbouring nuclear power, Pakistan, where the Taliban militants feel quite comfortable and enjoy freedom in its border provinces, and at the same time, military and special services are interested in the fact that the Taliban existed in the complicated geopolitical game, which is played by Islamabad.      

Undoubtedly, The Europeans wish to withdraw from Afghanistan as early as possible, but by taking into account unending resistance put up by the Taliban and real level of training of the Afghan army and the police now, and several other factors that demand the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, it’s too early to talk about NATO pullout.

At present, the most urgent issue facing the alliance and the U.S. is how to leave Afghanistan without losses rather than when to leave. 
Following will be the optimal scenario. Afghan capital and the country’s large cities should be cleaned up from Taliban as much as possible by pursuing “stick and carrot” policy –  destroying uncompromising militants and attracting the so-called “moderate” Taliban leaders to the negotiating process. Under the political amnesty declared by U.S. President Barack Obama and the Afghan leaders, encourage Taliban leaders and militants to cooperate with the central government and include them in local ruling bodies. There is a need to do the best to prevent the Taliban from conditional reviving under the slogan of uniting all Afghans to fight against the “western crusaders” and consequently, the Afghan leaders should consistently pursue a policy of splitting the groups that resist NATO and the U.S. At the same time, there is a need to engage in solving the drug issue and start fighting against drug business and drug barons since many of these people are field commanders who use proceeds from drug sale to finance their militant groups. The Taliban receives lion’s share of the proceeds and they have learned to use the dependence of Afghan farmers on growing poppy as a tool to exert pressure on the ISAF and the U.S.

This scenario repeats partially the plan of General Petraeus, which was implemented in Iraq. The essence of the plan is that the enemy looses its control over vital centres of the government, although it continues to carry out terrorist attacks, and this has paved the way for NATO members to carry out troop cuts and handover functions of guaranteeing security to local armed forces. The success of the given scenario will be the achievement of maximum possible result under the current situation and the final result of the operation will be recognized as the “second best”, not the best but the only possible solution for NATO since the desirable victory over the Taliban is a myth owing to the fact that it has inexhaustible reserves of militants and is capable of waging an everlasting partisan war against any foreign presence in Afghanistan.

To achieve real results in Afghanistan there is a need to make serious efforts not only by western and Afghan forces but also Pakistan. In this case, NATO unlike the U.S., which provides considerable assistance as part of the antiterrorist operation conducted by the Pakistani government against the Taliban on its territory, has no mechanisms to establish cooperation with that country or any tools that can exert influence on it.

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