WASHINGTON, October 26, 2014 — The United States and the United Kingdom today officially ended the operations of the Southwest Regional Command, a joint force under NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces. Marines lowered the U.S. flag at Camp Leatherneck at the same time that the United Kingdom officially closed Camp Bastion.
NATO, which has operated in Afghanistan for more than 13 years, will officially end all combat operations in the country later this year. Both the UK and the U.S. will withdraw combat forces, although a recently-signed bilateral security agreement allows some 10,000 U.S. troops to remain after 2014. Additionally, some military advisors will remain in-country.
The international community is watching the NATO withdrawal warily, worried that removing the international forces will create a vacuum that will allow the Taliban to revive and retake the country. The birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has raised serious questions about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and whether the abrupt departure contributed to the rise of the insurgents. International forces are attempting to avoid that same situation in Afghanistan.
One substantial difference is the Bilateral Security Agreement, signed between the United States and Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani. Although former President Hamid Karzai refused to sign the accord, both Ghani and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pledged to sign the agreement during the campaign.
Under the accord, approximately 9,800 American and at least 2,000 NATO troops will stay in Afghanistan after the international mission ends on December 31, 2014. The bulk of the force will train and advise the Afghan Armed Forces, although some U.S. Special Forces will conduct counterterrorism missions.
This contrasts with the situation in Iraq, where the Iraqi government refused to allow U.S. troops to remain in any capacity and Washington agreed to Baghdad’s demands.
A second difference is that Afghanistan has cobbled together a unity government, at least temporarily. The process was painful and threatened to fall apart on several instances, but ultimately Ghani and Abdullah agreed to form a government together. Abdullah, who lost the election, is actually part of Ghani’s government rather than part of the opposition.
This extremely unique and fragile arrangement was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The decision by Ghani and Abdullah to accept the plan ensured not only that U.S. troops would remain after the end of the year, but also that Afghanistan would continue to receive desperately-needed U.S. aid.
One problem for post-NATO Afghanistan may be lack of infrastructure spending, which some say mirrors a failure of U.S. forces in Iraq. The United States alone spent more than $640 billion in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2013, but locals complain that there was virtually no investment in industries or agriculture in the country. Some local tribal leaders say international spending created new problems, by favoring tribal leaders who visibly backed the NATO forces and ignoring those who remained neutral.
A second similar situation is the amount of weapons NATO is leaving in Afghanistan as it pulls out. According to the Pentagon, the United States will leave approximately $6 billion in military equipment in Afghanistan after it leaves. Some of that equipment will be destroyed, but much of it will be transferred to the control of the Afghan security forces. However, a Pentagon report last December noted that the Afghan forces do not adequately protect these weapons, so “U.S. and coalition-provided weapons are at risk of theft, loss or misuse.”
In Iraq, less than 3% of the weapons transferred to the Iraqi Security Forces were properly accounted for by 2006. Now, a large amount of that equipment is in the hands of ISIS or other militant groups.
The biggest question, however, is whether the Afghan security forces can combat the Taliban and remain loyal to the government. NATO has worked to focus the Afghan military on internal as well as external threats rather than looking exclusively at external defense, as the U.S. did with Iraq’s army.
The Taliban remains a virulent threat. Over the last year, the group has launched major offensives to regain territory and continues to reject peace talks and the new government. It maintains a strong presence in 18 of 34 provinces, and will attempt to exploit vulnerabilities of the new government, and the withdrawal of international forces, to mount a renewed effort in Afghanistan.
Despite attempts to avoid the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan, the situation is tenuous. The troops that will remain beyond the end of 2014 may help deter some Taliban effort and act as a glue to hold together the Afghan security forces, but are unlikely to completely hold together the government.
The extremely delicate unity government, divisions in the country, inability of government to function without aid flows, and poverty throughout the country combined with a revived Taliban insurgency raise serious questions about the long-term viability of a democratic Afghanistan.
Ultimately, the Afghan people themselves, not any residual NATO force, will decide Afghanistan’s future.