Oh, yes. There was something there: The great Afghanistan fatigue of the West was clear at the NATO summit, but the conflict at Hindu Kush is anything but ended.
It is the longest war in the history of the United States. And yet the conflict in Afghanistan hardly gets any part of the public’s attention. Afghanistan fatigue even circulates among experts; at the NATO summit in Warsaw, the topic of Afghanistan fits into the category of: “Oh, yes, there was something there.” Or as a high-ranking representative of NATO expressed blatantly, “Afghanistan belongs to the past.”*
The new NATO is primarily the old NATO that defines itself less in out-of-area deployments like in Afghanistan, but instead places the defense of its alliance members at the center of its concerns. This is a NATO that feels that a massive threat to the alliance itself emanates from Russia since the annexation of the Crimea. In reaction to that, it has decided at the summit in Warsaw to station four battalions in the Baltic and in Poland with 1,000 men each, although General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg in the same breath also emphasizes, “The Cold War is history”; and that dialogue with Russia must be sought again and again.
Still Serious Security Problems
But, oh, yes, there was something else there: Afghanistan — and the conflict there is anything but ended. The country is still far removed from peaceful resolution even if the latest statistics reveal fewer security incidents than in 2015, which was extremely bloody for the Afghan troops. “There is no reason to believe all the problems in Afghanistan will be solved in the near future,” admitted NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg on Saturday after the meeting of heads of state and government leaders with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.** There are still serious problems with the security situation; for this reason, too, the alliance has decided to continue its engagement in Hindu Kush.
NATO, then, is fulfilling the central wishes of the Afghan leaders in Warsaw: The financing of the security forces is nearly complete until 2020. Considerable sums are still flowing into the Afghan military and the police; Kabul is still far from standing on its own feet. Of the $5 billion that is required for the police and military annually, the Afghan government only raises about 10 percent, as a high-ranking representative of NATO explained in Warsaw. According to him, $3.5 billion is paid by the Americans. The rest, about $1 billion, is split up among the rest of the NATO countries. And for that, the corresponding pledges were largely made, Stoltenberg reports.
But what is even more important to the Afghan leaders: NATO will also continue its Resolut-Support Mission through 2016, and thus continue to station soldiers in Afghanistan, and train and advise the local troops. President Barack Obama set the path for that immediately before the summit when he announced that he would not cut back the American troop presence to 5,400 soldiers as originally planned, but would instead station 8,400 troops at Hindu Kush next year as well, therefore until the end of his term of office. Other NATO states will leave around 3,000 additional soldiers in Afghanistan.
The U.S. was the first to march into Afghanistan 15 years ago and will be the last to withdraw. The summit is once again postponing the question of when withdrawal will take place; for military reasons, the situation in Afghanistan is too precarious for that. For these pledges, NATO expects in turn more engagement from the Afghan government. The Afghan agreement in Warsaw contains a long list of desired reforms: election reforms, women’s rights, fighting corruption, creation of jobs. Above all in the last part, Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned at at the end of her press conference that the government in Kabul must do its utmost to improve the economic situation in Afghanistan. “We see by the many migrants who have come from Afghanistan that the situation here is not yet satisfactory,” she said.
Not Much Has Changed in the Military Standoff
The commitment of the Western military alliance to help the country remains in force then. But that cannot reverse a strategic mistake that Obama made in Afghanistan. The president had scheduled the withdrawal of fighting forces at the end of 2014 and thereby played into the hands of the Taliban. For the Islamist extremists, there was no reason to sit down at the negotiating table with the Afghan government to work out a peace treaty. They could simply wait until the Western fighting forces left the country. Now the Afghan security forces are responsible for the fight against the rebels; not much has changed during the military standoff. The Taliban will not be able to bring the whole country under their control, but they also have not lost this conflict.
The Islamist extremists now no longer inflict considerable losses on Western troops, but instead on Afghan troops; the civilian population is still afflicted by the conflict. All efforts of Afghan President Ghani to get the Taliban to the negotiating table have failed up to now. For the Afghan government, it was primarily a matter of obtaining the commitment of NATO to not walk out on the country in the coming years. That commitment happened. Thus, the Afghan delegation returns to Kabul satisfied. “We are very happy about the commitments that NATO made to us,” said an Afghan government spokesman. Because considering that NATO is primarily concentrating on other problems, the “forgotten conflict,” as a longstanding summit participant calls Afghanistan, was treated prominently on Saturday.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the source of this quote and its content could not be independently verified.
**Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, Stoltenberg’s quote could not be independently verified.