USIP experts provide a quick analysis on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's announcement about the U.S. ending the combat mission earlier than expected.

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Photo courtesy NYTimes

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters this week on his way to Brussels that the U.S. would end the combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2013. American troops, he said, would transition to a train-and-assist mission. The statement took many NATO officials there by surprise. The administration has sought to clarify that the American combat mission would not end completely, but would be greatly reduced.

USIP’s Andrew Wilder, who directs the Afghanistan and Pakistan programs, Shahmahmood Miakhel, director of USIP’s office in Kabul, and Omar Samad, a senior Afghan expert at USIP, gave their perspectives on the matter.

 

What do you think the defense secretary’s announcement will mean for NATO operations on the ground? Does it help or hinder peace talks? Some believe it reflects an American signal of strength. But how will it be perceived by the Taliban?

Andrew: At this point it remains unclear what Secretary Panetta’s comments will mean for NATO operations on the ground, because there is still lots of confusion about what his statement actually meant. At one level, they could be interpreted as simply clarifying that as troop levels decline, the military mission will inevitably change. At some point there will be insufficient troops to sustain a major fighting mission as well as an Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) training mission, and so it’s not that surprising to be saying that by 2013 the main focus will shift from fighting to training and assisting the ANSF. But the announcement may be interpreted differently in Afghanistan, especially coming as it does shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments about withdrawing French troops before 2014. There, it may be seen as further evidence that the international community will “cut and run” and abandon Afghanistan, much as it did in 1992. There is an urgent need for a strategic communications campaign to emphasize that the U.S. remains committed to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, albeit at more sustainable levels than in recent years. It would also help to reassure Afghans that they are not being abandoned if the U.S. and Afghan governments could quickly finalize the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which defines the nature of the U.S.’s military and economic support to Afghanistan post-2014.

 

What is your sense of the capabilities of the Afghan forces? What will they need to do over the next couple years to achieve the capability they need to reach by late 2013?

Shahmahmood: The announcement of the troops' withdrawal was premature and the ANSF will not be ready to take full responsibility by 2013 or even 2014. The whole military transition is based on several assumptions, but not reality, on the ground. I believe this announcement further strengthens the Taliban position to keep pressure on the Kabul government and the international community and it may demoralize the ANSF. Also, Afghanistan’s neighbors will hedge their plan around the international forces’ withdrawal, rather than be cooperative for enduring peace in Afghanistan.

 

This announcement seemed to come as a bit of a surprise to Kabul. What do you think the impact of this statement will have on the Afghan government and how could it help or hinder the U.S.-Afghan relationship?

Omar: Thousands of miles away from the noisy U.S. electoral arena, the impact of Secretary Panetta’s statement on the Afghan government will be four-fold. Internally, the Afghan government will see it partly linked to U.S. domestic political dynamics, and partly as applying the gradual draw down of forces in Iraq and applying it to an Afghan context, and as a prelude to the full transfer of security responsibilities by the end of 2014.

Unlike the French decision that was unexpected and was in reaction to a specific event, Kabul will try to explain that this decision falls within the parameters of the 2010 NATO decision in Lisbon. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who likely had hints such an announcement was coming, will analyze the impact in terms of his own domestic political standing, his administration’s capacity to cope with the consequences and the effect on the insurgency. He will also look at how this will affect talks that are now underway on U.S. and Afghan strategic cooperation.

The Afghan defense and security institutions are going to make a case for accelerating the process of strengthening the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, especially focusing on better equipment, heavy weapons systems and air defense capabilities. These and the question of funding the Afghan military (based on troop-level numbers) after 2014 will need to be decided at the NATO summit in May in Chicago. Overall, this decision will neither help nor hinder U.S.-Afghan relations, but will add an added dimension to take into consideration on all items that make up this complex relationship that goes beyond the bilateral mode. At the end of the day, what will matter most is what happens on the ground, militarily and politically speaking, between now and 2013 (after the American election), that may alter conditions and policies.

 

How will the Afghan civil society and general public react to this policy statement?

Omar: The Afghans, especially civil society and political actors, are, among other worries, already concerned about a number of things that include the capacity of Afghan forces by 2014, the economic fallout of the drawdown and the confused state of the “reconciliation” process. They will also fear the continued meddling of regional players the specter of a civil war. This decision will further increase domestic stress factors along fault lines that exist, and increase the gap between public perceptions and a coherent policy formulation. The result may be more people sitting on the fence or the mobilization of various interest groups asking for change and more guarantees.

 


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