NATO's Plan for Afghanistan Post-2014: A 'Stable Instability'

The U.S. and its allies are talking about commitments through 2018 and beyond.
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Afghan policemen keep watch during celebrations for Afghan New Year (Nawroz) in Kabul on March 21, 2013. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Many Americans think we're winding down in Afghanistan by the end of next year, for better or for worse.

We're not.

Despite America's evident desire to extricate itself from the nation's longest war, Taliban fighters, criminal gangs, and other insurgents continue to terrorize much of Afghanistan, making travel around the country as difficult as it's ever been. And the grim bargain that has dogged U.S. efforts in Afghanistan since the beginning of President Obama's "surge" still holds: The United States must find a way to supply and support an Afghan national army and police force that Washington has largely built but which is barely in its adolescence, although it is already 10 times the size of the fierce Taliban insurgency it is fighting.

Senior commanders with the American-led International Security Assistance Force, which consists of 28 NATO countries and 22 other participating nations, say that substantial aid and military support is going to be necessary well after the scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2014. "For some time to come, it's our expectation that we will need to supply the Afghans [with] air support, certainly, counter-IED support, logistic support, and a number of areas where their capabilities are not at the level where they need to be at," Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy ISAF commander, said in an interview in Kabul over the weekend. "It's our expectation that we'll need to continue to build those areas for some time to come and probably beyond 2014."

Asked how many years that role might go, Carter, a British officer, said he believes that ISAF will need to "set the horizon out to 2018 ... It will take between three and five years to achieve. And it's important for people to understand that."

Within weeks, probably by the end of June, ISAF is expected to move to the final, and fifth, phase of its "handover" to the Afghan army and police. At that point the combined Afghan National Security Forces, as they are known, are expected to take the nominal lead in planning and directing all missions nationwide against the insurgents; currently ANSF is said to be doing that for about 85 percent of the country. The U.S. and other ISAF countries are then to assume a purely "train, advise, and assist" role. But Carter and others say ANSF is still falling short in effective leadership; command and control; logistics and medical evacuation; training its personnel effectively; and integrating the army's warfare strategy with the Afghan police and central and provincial government agencies. These deficiencies will continue long after 2014.

In the end, securing Afghanistan's future is likely to be more far expensive than Washington and other NATO capitals have fully reckoned with yet. It won't be an easy political choice, either, coming at a time when the U.S. defense budget has been slashed by the sequester and European NATO nations must conform to economic austerity policies.

Indeed, the rhetoric back in Washington often does not seem to square with the reality over here. Since last year's presidential election, Obama administration officials have indicated that America's military is heading for the exit in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. "This year, we'll mark another milestone -- Afghan forces will take the lead for security across the entire country," Obama said at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in January. "And by the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete -- Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this long war will come to a responsible end."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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