Does NATO want out of Afghanistan?

Behind closed doors a paper has been circulated that may provide the beginnings of an exit strategy.

Topics: Afghanistan, France, Germany,

So far, little has remained behind closed doors at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. Almost every cough from every negotiating session has found its way into the press. But there is one document that has remained largely in the shadows. NATO diplomats have been working on a far-reaching strategy paper for the ongoing mission in Afghanistan.

The secrecy, some say, is necessary, as the dossier contains details that could compromise the safety of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Others have been a bit more direct, saying that the paper is simply too controversial to be made public.

According to diplomats, there are indeed some interesting details to be found. The paper illustrates a new train of thought developing within NATO: For the first time, a step-by-step outline has been sketched — with substantial help from Germany — for when the 47,000 NATO troops currently in Afghanistan might be pulled out. According to diplomats, concrete benchmarks are laid out — though any withdrawal, they make clear, would not be immediate.

It is no accident that Germany has played a big part in the drafting of the paper. It has long been clear in Berlin that Germany’s involvement in the mission has a limited shelf life given widespread opposition among the German populace and growing doubts in Parliament. Were there something of a “master plan” for the operation, politicians in the chancellery and Defense Ministry would be able to offer the prospect of German troops returning from Afghanistan. Benchmarks for what must be achieved before that happens could also be clearly defined.

German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung began thinking aloud about an Afghanistan master plan last autumn during a NATO meeting in the Netherlands. The current paper being circulated in Bucharest is largely based on his deliberations on the possibility of an exit strategy. In an early draft, the concepts of “networked security” and reconstruction played prominent roles. The “fight against insurgents” was only mentioned in passing. The current draft of the communiqué maintains a similar focus — though a demand for “burden sharing” among NATO allies has not been left out.

The authors of the secret paper seem to have been quite realistic when formulating their list of NATO benchmarks. They sketched out very concretely just how strong the Afghan security forces had to be before they could start taking over security responsibilities from NATO. The number of soldiers needed in the Afghan army was set at 80,000. The minimum level of competence the soldiers must achieve was also spelled out, as was a list of the army’s logistical capabilities. Given those criteria, say experts, any pullout couldn’t begin before 2015.

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Indeed, diplomats say that the new plan avoids mentioning a specific date at all. There were fears that setting such a target could weaken NATO’s resolve and stoke false expectations. Furthermore, it has repeatedly become apparent just how difficult it is to meet specific goals in Afghanistan. Germany, for example, admitted just recently that its training program for police in Afghanistan has not proceeded according to plan.

Still, the new paper signals a clear and completely new direction in Afghanistan for both NATO and Germany. It calls for soldiers to gradually focus their attention more on training Afghan police forces and to hand over responsibility for actual conflict situations “as soon as external circumstances and Afghan capabilities allow.” It is precisely for this reason that several NATO countries want to expand their training programs. Defense Minister Jung has even mentioned tripling Germany’s training efforts.

But the paper also alludes to some problem areas that NATO has been studiously ignoring. Diplomats say that the paper would provide very clear benchmarks for Afghan officials in the areas of combating illicit drugs and creating an independent, accountable judiciary, for example.

Several diplomats believe that such benchmarks make the outlook for a swift withdrawal even bleaker. Indeed, Jung has completely avoided using the taboo phrase “exit strategy” in reference to the paper, but he has nevertheless been quick to praise the draft plan. He has referred to it as an “objective we can all set our sights on.”

“According to everything I’ve seen and to everything that other countries have added,” Jung said of the paper, “I am very hopeful that it can be achieved in the foreseeable future.” Specific timelines, however, remain taboo.

What the new secret plan really means for NATO in Afghanistan will become clear only in the months to come. In June, a number of NATO member states will gather in Paris for an Afghanistan summit. Only then will we know just how prepared NATO is to increase reconstruction aid.

Still, despite the paper, it is clear that NATO will not be leaving Afghanistan anytime soon. The mission, the alliance has repeatedly made clear, remains a “long-term mission.”


This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe’s most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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