Def. Sec. Panetta said that NATO forces will end their combat role in Afghanistan in 2013.
1. Panetta’s statement is probably not a surprise or…?
2. We basically know what will happen in 2013 and 2014 with NATO troops in Afg. But what do you expect in 2012? An escalation of the conflict or the focus on diplomatic activity or something else?
Gerard Russell, Senior Associate, Foreign Policy Centre
1. Panetta’s statement moves forward the expected timeline – everyone knew that US and other troops would move to a training from a combat focus by 2014, but that left room for the transition to happen during 2014 rather than 2013.
So Panetta’s remarks do three things – they shift forward slightly the time when Afghan forces will be in the frontline with US air support and back-up; they give a year’s flexibility during which if things go wrong, US troops can still switch back to a combat capacity temporarily; and they suggest a detailed agreement between the President’s staff and the Service chiefs on the precise timeline for the switch.
2. In terms of 2012, it is very hard to tell what will happen. Here is a guess. Talks with the Taliban might lead to a kind of US-Taliban truce, punctuated perhaps by bouts of fighting depending how the talks are going. But the Afghan government will be unhappy, worried that it might be sacrificed as part of the deal. Taliban will expand their influence peacefully across the south of Afghanistan, and tensions will rise in specific places (Wardak province for example) between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups. Localism will increase as ethnic groups like Hazaras and Tajiks revert to seeing ”warlord” figures as providing better protection than the Kabul government. The result of the Pakistani elections will matter, but it is hard to tell exactly how: Pakistan will be happy if it is part of the peace negotiations with the Taliban, and may see itself as having an interest in their success. Non-Afghan actors such as US and UK will put across the message that the Afghans now are looking after their own affairs; they will want to take less responsibility for what happens next. President Karzai will need to make a decision about his post-2014 future, which may mean that he and his allies decide to go for constitutional change allowing him to stand for re-election. He doesn’t need to make a move on this till late 2013, when it will get less attention in the West.
Alia Brahimi, Research Fellow, LSE Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
1. Panetta’s statement is not a surprise. A full and sudden withdrawal in 2014 would have been impractical and very dangerous, so of course it was only a matter of time before the Obama administration was going to have to indicate a timetable for withdrawal. It’s equally unsurprising that this indication lays emphasis on training and advising Afghan security forces, since the efficacy of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police is what NATO is pinning all its hopes on.
2. In order for Afghan security forces to stand a chance, 2012 must be a year of feverish diplomacy and, it is hoped, negotiation. The combat strategy has failed, and the Taliban are stronger than ever. It is a commonly held view by Afghan analysts that a civil war will break out upon the departure of NATO in 2014, and that the Taliban will be the main beneficiaries. This scenario must be averted at all costs, which is why the diplomacy route is suddenly, and belatedly, on the table.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Researcher, The Global Security research programme, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
1. I think it did come as a surprise, at least to the broader public. Clearly though, things like this are prepared for some time, I cannot imagine that ISAF contributing countries were completely unaware of this. Also, to some extend the reality is a little fuzzy, “advising and assisting” gives a lot of leeway in terms of what is done on the ground.
2. 2012 sees most ISAF contributing countries decrease their contribution by some amount 10-25%. Overall, I’d expect countries to want to limit exposure to casualties, meaning the end of ISAF headed aggressive combat operations in most parts of the country. I expect negotiations to start between representatives of the Taleban, US and Afghan officials (actual negotiations, not negotiations about negotiations). This may deescalate drone strikes in Afghanistan, but I don’t think the CIA will stop what they’re doing in Pakistan because of the negotiations.
Harsh V. Pant, Reader in International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London
1. This is not a surprise as it has been clear for some time now what the Obama Administration wants in Afghanistan. What is still a big uncertainty, however, is what the final military footprint of the US will be in Afghanistan. Negotiations are still going on about the US military presence post 2014. And this is leading to confused signals, further complicating an already complicated strategic scenario.
2. All major actors in this drama are preparing for the endgame and 2012 will be a crucial year when the positions of various actors will be more clearly defined. The recently leaked NATO report has once again made it clear that the Taliban are biding their time. The violence is down not because the NATO’s strategy is working but because the Taliban have opted for a ‘strategic retreat.’ The support from the Pakistani military and intelligence continues unabated. Pakistani military has also read the writing on the wall and they are busy securing their position for the post-2014 scenario. The West will have to sell its departure as some sort of victory and so the next two years will be used to shape the narrative. Obama wants to get out, Sarkozy wants to get out, leaving Cameron in an unenviable position of saying “Not so fast.” Certainly there will be a lot of talks about talks but so far it is not clear who will be doing this talking and what will be parameters of these talks. If the Taliban feel they are winning already, why would they talk in good faith? All in all, a crisis that’s about to get much worse!
Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council of the United States
No, I was not surprised. President Obama remains committed to the exit path. Also this is an election year in the United States, so it is helpful to him to bring the boys and girls home sooner.
In 2012 I expect greater emphasis on talks. But also likely that President Karzai will make his parallel moves to secure relationships with Pakistan and India to provide him a cushion in case the coalition and other allies daily to provide him with lasting security assistance.