Insights and Analysis

NATO Summit: Afghanistan Progresses toward Transition

May 16, 2012

By Bernie Denis

It’s May, and as the old saying goes, spring is in the air. In Afghanistan, while spring has surely brought a bounty of roses and wonderful weather, it is probably more apt to say “transition is in the air.” No matter with whom one speaks – from shopkeepers and farmers, to government officials, young and old, junior or senior in rank – the conversation always seems to very quickly turn to the transition; questions about the hand-over, NATO Summit, Tokyo Conference, what happens post-2014, which donors will remain in Afghanistan, and which country is withdrawing its military personnel next.

A market in Kabul

While some Afghans express relief that foreign military forces are on schedule to withdraw by 2014, others seem uncertain of what this transition will mean.

In my many years working in Afghanistan, rarely have I witnessed such focused dialogue across all levels and sectors of Afghanistan society. During these discussions, some Afghan colleagues are clearly pleased that a “line in the sand” has been drawn for the withdrawal of foreign military forces by 2014. At the same time, I sense trepidation from many Afghans over the uncertainty of what transition, hand-over, and withdrawal of foreign military forces and international support will actually mean for their lives and their country moving forward to 2014 and beyond.

What does seem to be a central theme in many of these discussions, both domestically and internationally, is the ability of the Afghan Security Forces (made up of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army) to provide the appropriate security environment for Afghans in the post-2014 era.

Discussions at the NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20-21 will most certainly focus on the considerable effort to address the security challenges faced in Afghanistan. But this time, there will likely be a more positive atmosphere surrounding the core themes of transition and hand-over of security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government. There is no longer any doubt that NATO will exit from Afghanistan, as scheduled. In recent statements, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen clearly articulated that NATO was sticking to the security transition plan in Afghanistan mapped out in 2010, and that the military alliance will hand over combat operations in 2013 and all security responsibilities of the country to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has supported this position, and on Sunday, he announced the next phase of the transition from NATO forces, which would eventually see 75 percent, or 122 more districts, of the country under Afghan control.

The NATO Summit is expected to focus on the following three areas:

  • an interim milestone for 2013 whereby the International Security Assistance Force’s mission will shift from combat to support for the Afghan national security forces;
  • size, cost, and sustainment of the Afghan forces beyond 2014; and
  • a roadmap for NATO’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan.

Amid these big picture discussions about force size and transitions, it’s critical we don’t lose sight of what is really at stake for Afghan citizens, and that this is their future prosperity, their security, and the opportunity to live in peace. Recent well-organized attacks by insurgents in Kabul and elsewhere directed at embassies and Afghan government facilities has lead some to say that Afghan security forces are ill-prepared to combat the insurgency, even with NATO’s ongoing support and training. Unfortunately, following the attacks on April 15 in Kabul in particular, few domestic and international media reported that there has been good progress in the Afghan Security Forces, and that it was likely the Afghan Security Forces’ quick reaction, containment, and efforts that eventually resulted in victory over the insurgents. Things could have gone horribly wrong on this day and surely would have several years ago. Although the operation took place in a densely populated area of Kabul, Afghan Security Forces quickly coordinated an orderly evacuation of bystanders to safety, keeping the civilian casualty rate very low. Afghan Security Forces are also now taking the lead on the controversial, but necessary, night raid operations which has helped them gain trust and respect from the Afghan people.

Recently, a high-ranking Afghan official told me: “It is our country, and while we may need some international assistance going forward, we are ready to take responsibility for our future.” This NATO summit is an opportunity for the Afghanistan government to stand up – with a strong Afghan security force – and accept responsibility for the critical task of providing a safe and secure environment for its citizens.

Bernie Denis advises for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. He can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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