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Tense ties with US

February 27, 2013

THE recent meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels has brought to light the sort of ideas the Obama administration is debating with Nato allies as it tries to meet the objectives of completing its military withdrawal by 2014 and leaving behind enough resources to offer Afghanistan a chance of achieving stability.

Nato’s secretary general, Fogh Rasmussen, said in his press conference that no firm decisions had been taken either on the size of the residual foreign military presence or on that of the Afghan security forces that Nato would finance.

Nothing had been agreed beyond the fact that Nato would continue to provide support to Afghanistan in security matters. His concluding remarks on Afghanistan were: “Nato and the broader international community will continue to help Afghanistan. But it is for the Afghan people to shape their country’s future. We can help build security, but only the Afghan people can build their society.” This was a clear message to President Hamid Karzai.

Notwithstanding the absence of firm decisions, one can glean from the statements and media coverage of the Nato meeting, and from a close reading of earlier coverage, that the maximum proposed foreign military presence after 2014 would be between 8,000 and 12,000. But in all probability the presence will be less. It will have the primary role of counterterrorism and the secondary role of training the Afghan security forces.

The Americans will clearly have the largest contingent — somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. It will consist for the most part of Special Operation Forces and of personnel for manning the airfields from which drones will operate for counterterrorism. The Americans will keep their forces in the south and east and leave it to the regional command in the north — probably headed by the Germans — and the west — probably headed by the Italians — to undertake the training mission.

In May last year, it had been the Nato plan to build the Afghan security forces to a strength of 352,000 by 2013 and then to reduce this number by 2017 to 230,000. The financing for the 230,000 was estimated at $4.1 billion towards which the Afghans would have contributed $500 million and Nato allies another $300m. The balance would have come from the US which would also pick up the additional amount needed from 2014 to 2017 – roughly $2bn a year.

At the Nato meeting, what seems to have been discussed and possibly agreed to is that since the residual Nato presence was going to be much smaller than originally envisaged the Afghan security forces would be kept at the 350,000 level until 2018.

This would mean that instead of the $4.1bn needed annually to support 230,000 Afghan security forces, a sum of $6.5bn would be made available of which the Afghans would provide $500m, the US $5.7bn while the other Nato countries would contribute $300m. Whether support for the Afghan forces would be maintained after 2018 was not made clear but Karzai had earlier suggested that he expected his allies to foot the major part of the bill up to 2024.

It is probable that the Americans have agreed to pick up the difference. For them it would be a good bargain since an additional $2.4bn would suffice for stationing only 2,500 additional soldiers in Afghanistan. For the Afghans it would be an advantage not only in security terms but also because it would postpone at least for some time the retrenchment that would put 120,000 men trained only to carry arms on the list of unemployed Afghans. But this is the only good news for Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan there has been a steady worsening of relations between the Karzai administration and his Nato allies. A week ago Karzai prohibited Afghan forces from calling upon Nato for air support of Afghan land operations because of the civilian casualties that result from such aerial attacks.

Now the Afghan president has called upon US forces to stop operations in Wardak province and withdraw from there. This decision was taken on Feb 24 because the Afghans had failed to get any satisfaction from their requests to the Americans to investigate charges that American Special Forces or their Afghan employees had been responsible for “harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people”.

A day later a Nato spokesman said their investigation had shown that no American had engaged in “unprofessional behaviour” in Wardak.

This denial was to be expected and is probably accurate. The American Special Forces are known to have created a special Afghan militia of which even the low-level commands of regular American forces are not kept informed.

Since Americans themselves can be taken to task under American law for torturing or killing suspects they use these militias for this purpose just as “extraordinary renditions” were employed in the Bush era to get the intelligence services of “friendly countries” to use unsavoury means to extract confessions or information from suspected insurgents.

So Karzai is right in asking for a cessation of such activities. But Wardak, only 48 kilometres from Kabul, has, according to the local police chief, 101 active insurgent groups including Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami. Local officials say that they cannot travel by road outside the provincial capital without heavy security escort. Will the removal of the Americans reduce or enhance the security risks to Wardak and perhaps even Kabul itself?

It is also likely that the restrictions Karzai is now placing on Nato military activity will make consensus on a status of forces agreement being negotiated between the United States and Afghanistan more difficult.

On another front, the Pak-Afghan ulema conference to which the Afghans attached great importance appears to have stalled. There seems to be no progress on reconciliation with the formal recognition of the Taliban office in Doha hanging fire. One can only say that bleak days lie ahead for Afghanistan and by extension for Pakistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.