NATO Looks to Exit Afghanistan Whether U.S. Approves or Not
Has a secret NATO exit deal been planned for war-torn nation?
By Richard Walker
When NATO meets in Paris in June for a summit on Afghanistan, there could be a secret deal on the table that will offer a way out of a war in which the U.S. and its allies have become increasingly bogged down.
Much to the dismay of Washington war planners, there has been a growing weariness in Europe with the Afghan conflict and reluctance by NATO members to expand troop commitments. This past year, Pentagon chiefs have consistently complained that European allies have not been pulling their weight at a time when it is vital to throw more troops into the fight against a resurgent Taliban, and a re-formed al Qaeda, whose leadership is based somewhere in the tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Talk of a secret deal emerged during the recent NATO summit in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, when member nations were given a classified dossier outlining a German-inspired strategy for a reduction in troop levels leading to a phased withdrawal. The proposal conflicted strongly with the views of Pentagon military chiefs who have long argued that a resolution of the conflict could take decades. They believe that, like Iraq, Afghanistan might require a U.S.-NATO presence without a time limit.
For some observers, the shifting German position on Afghanistan was predictable because the German public has consistently made it clear it is opposed to a long-term military commitment. During a NATO summit in Holland last year, Germany’s defense minister, Franz Joseph Jung, hinted at building up the Afghan security forces as a prelude to troop withdrawals, but he was careful not to elaborate or provide a timescale. But, in the wake of this latest summit, reports indicated that the secret German dossier went further, pointing to a need to build, train and equip an Afghan army and police force to take over from NATO.
Some of the proposals were said to fall into line with a British policy advocating intensive training of the Afghan military, the planning for a robust police force to combat organized crime and terrorism and the creation of an independent judiciary.
The British, however, have been reluctant to predicate their proposals on any hint of an exit strategy. Nonetheless, Germany’s apparent willingness to set the groundwork for a phased withdrawal could find favor with NATO countries that are reluctant to commit to a long-term engagement in Afghanistan.
Another unusual aspect of the Bucharest summit was the background role played by Russia, which experienced its own Vietnam when it occupied Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent summit members an offer that would allow NATO to ship food and “non-lethal military equipment” for its Afghan forces across Russian territory, thus avoiding treacherous routes through Pakistan.
The Pakistani routes have begun to prove hazardous for NATO food and oil convoys, with 40 oil tankers destroyed in a recent attack.
A curious aspect of the Russian offer was that Russia also made it on behalf of six neighboring countries, including Uzbekistan, through which NATO convoys would have to pass after exiting Russia en route to northern Afghanistan. Those countries come under Russia’s NATO alternative, the CSTO—Collective Security Treaty Organization. By making the offer, President Putin was in effect indicating that NATO needed a closer partnership with Russia. Putin and his advisers had carefully studied NATO’s logistical difficulties and the fact that the Taliban had identified most of NATO’s transit routes through Pakistan, making it easy to hit NATO supply lines.
In particular, the Taliban had been zeroing in on the major Pakistan-Afghanistan crossing point at Torkham, thereby interrupting important supply convoys. When Putin made his offer he was equally aware of a growing concern within NATO about the changing political climate in Pakistan and how, in the longer term, it could have a negative impact on NATO’s reliance on Pakistan as a supply route.
If all of that was not enough to make the Bucharest summit a complex affair, there were calls from countries like Uzbekistan for a dialogue between the Afghan Northern Alliance led by Gen. Rashid Dostum and the Taliban. Dostum, with the help of U.S. Special Forces, crushed the Taliban at the outset of the U.S. invasion. His territory shares a border crossing with Uzbekistan, and both he and the Uzbekistani president, Islam Karimov, have benefited tremendously from the heroin traffic that uses the crossing.
While the Pentagon still maintains good relations with Dostum, it has no time for Karimov, who ordered the U.S. to leave bases in his country after Washington diplomats condemned his killing of hundreds of Muslim protesters in 2005. His regime has been accused of boiling dissidents alive; yet several years ago he visited the White House and signed a secret
pact with President George W. Bush. Aside from his proposal to start talks with the Taliban, he also recommended involving neighboring countries like China in a dialogue to find a solution to the Afghan crisis.
While that may appeal to one or two NATO members, it will be dismissed by British and American leaders, who were dismayed to learn in Bucharest that the Northern Alliance was already engaged in a secret dialogue with the Taliban. The source for that information was none other than the Uzbek leader, Islam Karimov.
It now looks like NATO for the foreseeable future will be tied to Russia and countries like Uzbekistan for supply lines, and that could prove problematic, especially if men like Karimov choose to play a greater role in Afghan politics. For example, if NATO has to rely entirely on routes through Russia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan, it will make it difficult to exclude the leaders of those nations from demanding a role in forging an outcome to the Afghan conflict.
Richard Walker is the nom de plume of a former mainstream news producer who now writes for AFP so he can expose the kinds of subjects that he was forbidden to cover in the controlled press.
(Issue # 17, April 28, 2008)