24 November 2011 - AFGHAN TRANSITION ON TRACK BUT ENDURING EFFORT NEEDED BEYOND 2014, NATO PARLIAMENTARIANS HEAR AT LONDON SEMINAR
More than 100 Members of Parliament from 33 NATO and partner countries gathered in London, UK, on 21-22 November, to review the priorities of the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan and the challenges which lie ahead as Afghanistan prepares to take over full responsibility for its security by the end of 2014.
Four months after the official start of the process of transition to Afghan lead responsibility for security, the 78th Rose-Roth Seminar entitled “2011-2014: Afghanistan Towards Transition”, organised by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) in cooperation with the British Parliament and with the support of the Swiss government, provided a timely opportunity to assess progress in some of the key aspects of the mission, including the building-up of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), good governance and the rule of law, reconciliation and reintegration, reconstruction and economic development, and regional co-operation. Participants heard briefings by a broad range of high-level officials from NATO, NATO allied and partner governments, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as independent experts.
Opening the seminar, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told participants that “hard-won but fragile progress” has been achieved in Afghanistan in many areas. Transition to full Afghan ownership is the “right strategy”, it provides a clear path, setting Afghanistan on “a journey of self-reliance” within a “credible” timeline, Mr Hague stressed, warning, however, that “enduring international commitment” and “strategic patience” will be essential, and that international forces will have to “face the insurgency every remaining day” of their combat mission.
In his welcoming remarks, Dr Karl A. Lamers, President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, stressed the important role and responsibility of parliamentarians in this regard, particularly in explaining to their citizens the reasons and requirements of the Alliance’s engagement in Afghanistan, and ensuring that transition is implemented in a coordinated and responsible manner.
Ambassador Stephen Evans, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Operations, confirmed that “transition is on track, the direction is clear, but it will be challenging”. According to current plans, areas across Afghanistan will be progressively transferred to the ANSF in five tranches. A first transfer representing some 20% of the Afghan population is currently being implemented, and announcement of the second tranche is imminent. This second phase is expected to bring a total of 50% of the population under ANSF control, including in a number of more difficult areas. It is hoped that Afghan authorities will be fully in charge of security across Afghanistan by 31 December 2014, at which point ISAF’s combat role would end.
While insurgents retain the ability to conduct attacks and grab headlines, NATO and Allied officials addressing the seminar were confident that the insurgents’ change of tactics “from guerrilla warfare to hit and run terrorism” including the growing use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bomber attacks, reflects the increasing inability of insurgents to succeed on the battlefield. The ANSF also continue to grow and demonstrate an ever greater ability to provide security, but synchronising the growth of the ANSF with ISAF’s “thinning out” will be essential.
The seminar discussion’s also made clear that, while significant progress has been achieved, serious difficulties remain, and “tying up the operational and strategic levels” is essential.
Strengthening governance and the feeling of allegiance of the population to the Afghan institutions remains a key challenge. Afghans need to trust the capacity of their government to provide services, the rule of law, and economic opportunities. Recent polls show growing levels of confidence, but further progress is required in such areas as the fight against corruption, justice, local governance, and links between Kabul and the local level.
A transition in the modus operandi of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) should lead to a progressive hand-over of service delivery functions to Afghan authorities. This process is expected to help strengthen Afghan ownership and enhance the link between local population and their institutions.
Speakers stressed, however, that it is important to put the Afghan situation into context in order to set realistic expectations and objectives. Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The country will continue to struggle with widespread deep poverty. Assuming current growth rates are sustained, the wide gap between budget income and government spending will not be bridged before 2024 at best. Ongoing economic support will therefore be essential beyond 2014, including to help fund the ANSF.
Efforts at achieving a political settlement with elements of the insurgency were unanimously seen as a key condition for future stability. However, limited progress has been achieved so far in contacts with the Taliban and their commitment to reconciliation remains highly uncertain, participants heard.
Long-term stability will also require enhanced co-operation and support of the countries in the region, especially Pakistan. The safe havens which Afghan insurgents enjoy in neighbouring regions were mentioned as a key ongoing challenge. While Afghanistan’s neighbours have repeatedly pledged to help stabilise the country, the seminar’s discussions showed that relations remain difficult, with mistrust and suspicion running deep. Both Afghan and Pakistani officials emphasized, however, that unprecedented efforts are under way to seek to improve relations, remove the existing “trust deficit”, and put an end to “the blame game”. Participants heard that increased trade and economic opportunities could provide positive incentives towards regional cooperation, and the recent Istanbul Conference was seen as a positive first step towards the possible establishment of a regional framework.
Discussions during the seminar made clear that continued efforts by the Alliance, its partners and the Afghans themselves are needed to make progress irreversible. Afghanistan remains vital to Euro-Atlantic security, and the gains achieved so far would be at risk if the international community and NATO member states were unwilling or unable to provide sufficient support until, and also beyond, the end of 2014.
“The end of transition should not mean the end of cooperation”, Dr Zia Nezam, Senior Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, emphasized. He noted in particular that the Afghan government is determined to conclude strategic partnerships with NATO and Allied nations, an objective that was endorsed by the traditional Loya Jirga convened the preceding week.
“NATO will not abandon Afghanistan”, Ambassador Stephen Evans, made clear, but its role will change. In the post-2014 phase, the Alliance will focus on training, mentoring and advising the ANSF, as well as providing support when required.
The upcoming international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in December and the NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012 were seen as important opportunities to confirm the international community’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan.