NATO ‘on message’ on Afghanistan – but what does the message mean?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tells us we are near the end of our mission in Afghanistan, but are we really?


Patrick Bury is a former army Captain who served in Afghanistan and the author of Callsign Hades, a memoir of his tour; the views expressed here are his own

While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is to be congratulated for his personal commitment to Afghanistan, as should his wider organisation and the men and women of our own armed forces, some of the statistics quoted in his recent Telegraph op-ed remain questionable, especially in light of a report issued by the UK Parliament’s international development committee that states a viable state in Afghanistan is not achievable.

Firstly, when Mr Rasmussen says:

“During the first six months of this year, Afghans led over 80 per cent of all operations, and they are currently conducting 85 per cent of their own training.”

…he fails to mention that in the last year ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) has lowered its criteria of classification for ANA (Afghan National Army) units to be capable of independent operations, thereby allowing more units in the lower categories to qualify for the highest category.

This has been discussed in a recent BBC Radio File on 4 investigation and by Professor Cordesman of the Council on Foreign Relations in his report that questions the failed metrics of 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

Secondly, Mr Rasmussen fails to mention attrition in the Afghan National Army is averaging about 2% per month throughout the year. For some reason, ISAF prefers to give this figure as a monthly percentage rather than an annual one.

Whatever way you look at it, there is no escaping the fact the ANA are losing about 24% of its force a year to attrition. This is beyond what most analysts agree is sustainable in the long term.

Thirdly, Mr Rasmussen is picking statistics that reflect progress in certain regions of Afghanistan at the expense of other regions with negative trends. When he says “in and around Kabul, enemy-initiated attacks fell by 17 per cent in the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period last year”, he fails to mention Kabul has traditionally been one of the safest regions with the least attacks.

Moreover, the latest US Department of Defense report on Afghanistan (page 70, pdf) describes the Kabul area of operations as “statistically insignificant (less than one percent) compared to all security incidents throughout Afghanistan”.

By contrast, if you take Regional Command South which includes Kandahar province – the seat of the insurgency – as a real indicator of progress, then according to the same report (page 119, pdf), violence actually increased by 13% during the traditionally quieter winter period. Furthermore, violence in RC-S represents 21% of Afghanistan’s total, so this is an important indicator.

Fourthly, Mr Rasmussen’s choice of the ‘enemy-initiated attack’ metric is also questionable as it does not include potential attacks and undetonated Improvised Explosive Device ‘finds’. As the most recent UK government report has outlined, the metric which includes these variables – known as ‘security incidents’ – has experienced no significant change recently.

Fifthly, Mr Rasmussen and NATO maintain “transition remains on schedule” and “in the course of 2013, the Afghans will have the lead for security throughout their country”. These plans are, indeed, on schedule – but the key qualitative and quantitative question here is ‘transition to what exactly’?

Given the wider context of the West’s mission in Afghanistan, transition is not an end in itself. If NATO hands security over to Afghan forces that in some regions are unable to venture outside their bases, then how are we to know the accurate picture of reality?

While NATO will definitely fulfil its mission of transition, the effects of that transition remain highly uncertain and should not be separated from the post-transition security situation.

Finally, Mr Rasmussen’s piece must be seen in the context of declining public support for the war: 70% of Americans and 73% of Britons are now against the war. Furthermore, the respected security think tank International Crisis Group recently released a damning report on Afghanistan’s transition.

Meanwhile, The New York Times, having supported the war for the last 11 years, published a seminal editorial entitled “Time to Pack up” on October 22nd calling for a withdrawal based on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. The fact the newspaper of the city that has the most reason to see troops remain in Afghanistan is now calling for US forces to exit speaks for itself.

NATO and the international community have shown remarkable commitment to Afghanistan. However, I believe the statistics quoted in Mr Rasmussen’s piece need to be seen in their wider context.

Furthermore, despite the best efforts of NATO, the West’s wider security and stability mission in Afghanistan is heading for strategic failure. This is due to both our own hubris and the pervasive corruption and incompetence of those we chose to ally ourselves with in Afghanistan. The only solid and perhaps long term gain we have achieved after 11 years of war is the reduction of al-Qa’eda in the country. This had mostly been achieved by March 2002.

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