Defence Ministers’ Primer – Resolute Support in the balance

By Nigel Chamberlain and Ian Davis, NATO Watch

NATO Spokesperson, Oana Lungescu, and senior NATO officials held a press briefing on 24 February in advance of the NATO Defence Ministers Meeting starting tomorrow. She indicated that subjects under discussion would include defence capabilities, defence capacity building, cyber defence, maritime security, the Connected Forces Initiative, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
The day before the press conference Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post that President Obama was considering four post-2014 options for Afghanistan and that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was planning to brief his NATO counterparts in Brussels:
1. A force of 10,000 US troops to be based in Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram air base and Jalalabad until the end of 2015, supported by 5,000 NATO and other international troops based in the northern and western parts of the country as part of a NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.
2. A somewhat smaller number of US troops based in Kabul and at Bagram until 2016 but with authorization to travel across the country to train and advise Afghan forces.
3. A more recent study has suggested a force of 3,000 troops based in and restricted to Kabul and at Bagram until 2016 with military drone operating from the air base.
4. The ‘zero option’ - a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan and thus no NATO Resolute Support mission.
It is expected that the discussion will focus on specific NATO countries contributions to Resolute Support — primarily Italy and Germany at this stage — if the US opted for a smaller force. No announcement of specific troop numbers is likely, however, despite during a December visit to Kabul, Hagel suggesting that the February NATO meeting was a “cutoff point” for Afghan President Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement.
The Guardianreported that “military officials, who have worked through months of uncertainty over the future US role in Afghanistan, agree that the forthcoming NATO meeting represents a key moment in the tussle with [President] Karzai”.
The discussions in Brussels will be tempered by the recent Center for Naval Analyses report which concluded that “the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015-18 timeframe than it is now” and “international enabler support will be essential” until at least 2018 if Afghan security forces are to hold their own against an anticipated Taliban resurgence. If all of its recommendations were followed, the report also concluded, “a negotiated political settlement to end the war would become much more likely in the 2019-23 timeframe.”
Speaking at a Stimson Centre meeting last week, former ISAF Commander General Allen compared the danger of US withdrawal to what happened when the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989. He said that the Soviets initially left advisers and funded the Afghan military but the dissolution of the Soviet Union soon afterward ended that assistance and led to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Rising casualty figures for both civilians and Afghan security forces also suggest that all is not well. Twenty-one Afghan soldiers were killed in Kunar province over the weekend when hundreds of Taliban militants attacked an army outpost near the Pakistani border. It was the deadliest single assault on Afghan security forces since September 2013, when 18 soldiers were killed in Badakhshan province.  And according to a recent Washington Post report, Afghan soldiers are desperate for Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement. Col. Mohammad Dost, a battalion commander in Zabul province, said "If the international community leaves, there is no question that we will lose ground to the Taliban. It's the biggest worry for every soldier now." 
Finally, the latest UN annual report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan for 2013 notes that the "Afghan government's share of blame for civilian casualties rose drastically last year, largely reflecting an intensification in the ground conflict between insurgents and Afghan troops".  Despite a number of complaints from President Karzai, the report also notes that only three percent of the civilian casualties last year were caused by international forces, a reflection of the fact that responsibility for security operations has been primarily handed over to Afghan forces. But the report adds that the decline in civilian casualties that was seen in 2012 was reversed, with civilian casualties -- totalling 8,615 people -- increasing by 14 percent in 2013, making it the worst year for civilian casualties since 2009. While nearly three-quarters of the casualties were attributed to the Taliban, 27 percent could not be attributed to either the Taliban or government forces, something the report describes as a "fog of war" dynamic that is increasingly shaping the conflict.