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NATO Unlikely To Declare 'Mission Accomplished' In Afghanistan

Graeme Smith
Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith, International Crisis Group (ICG) Afghanistan analyst, says NATO is unlikely to declare victory in Afghanistan at this week’s NATO summit in Wales.

In an interview with RFE/RL Afghan Service Correspondent Farishta Jalalzai, Smith said that unlike Iraq, the Afghan security forces do not face a rapid collapse, but they still need NATO resources to hold their country together.

RFE/RL: Has NATO succeeded in its Afghanistan mission?

Graeme Smith: I think NATO tried very hard, but unfortunately, no -- the mission has not been as successful as it could have been. NATO, as you know, was the lead contributor to the International Security Assistance Force, and by definition using the word 'security' in the name of the force gives you the idea that NATO was trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, that has measurably not happened.

Since the beginning of the NATO mission security has deteriorated significantly -- there are many more bombings, shootings, and more violence of all kinds. Civilian casualties today are hitting peak levels. Civilians are dying at a rate not seen since the beginning of the war. So, no, I don't think NATO has completed its mission.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan is not sending an elected president to the summit in Wales. Will the absence of an Afghan leadership presence be felt?

Smith: This is very disappointing that Afghanistan does not yet have a president, because this is a key moment. Afghanistan needs to go to Wales and persuade all of the donors to rethink the NATO summit agreement in Chicago in 2012, because in Chicago they assumed the insurgency would diminish, but it has not.

If you want to persuade all of these international delegations [at the NATO summit] to spend billions more dollars--and, you know, these are delegations that are, frankly, exhausted and tired and have other financial commitments -- you kind of need the head of state there to make that argument, to look them in the eye and say, 'look, my country needs this.' And so when you do not have the president there, it makes it harder for Afghanistan to make that argument at a very critical moment.

RFE/RL: Do you think the international community has failed in Afghanistan?

Smith: Yes, of course it has been a failure of the international community, but I would also say that Afghanistan is a very long way from being a failed state. I spent some time in Libya during the revolution in 2011, and that was genuinely a chaotic situation where militants ruled and the state was absent. We don't see that in Afghanistan. I think there is still hope and possibility that this could work out well. It is also important to recognize that it could still get a whole lot worse.

But, a lot of things have been accomplished. Today Afghanistan is richer, it is healthier, and people live longer lives. There are all kinds of ways in which the [NATO] mission has benefitted Afghanistan, but, unfortunately, security is not one of them.

Afghanistan today is a more dangerous place than it was a decade ago. So, I think NATO really needs to grapple with that fact. It needs to confront the fact that the burden on the Afghan national security forces is growing day by day. What is being left behind is a very large Afghan national security force -- somewhere between 350-370,000 Afghan forces -- which didn't exist before, but it's built up from almost zero. So, as responsibility is handed over to Afghan forces, I think, there is a sort of second chance to provide them with the tools they need to survive and hold the state together.

RFE/RL: Afghans are concerned about the possibility of ethnic violence if the dispute over the presidential election results persists. What is your assessment?

Smith: We have already tracked very limited and sporadic violence between the two camps, especially, I would say, in the north-west, which may be related to the elections. But really those reports have been very minor in the context of a real conflict in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Is there any hope for resolving the controversy over Afghanistan's presidential elections amicably?

Smith: Yes, although there are significant risks -- you know this political deal between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani may unravel. We may see greater ethnic conflicts, and I think Afghanistan's relationship with its donors has been tested by this process yet again. But, there are, I think, important opportunities coming out of the elections process.

RFE/RL: How do you compare Iraq's rapidly deteriorating situation with what is happening in Afghanistan?

Smith: I think there are very very important differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. First among which, I would say, is the willingness of the Afghan forces to fight and fight very hard. The sort of melting away of the Iraqi army that you saw in the face of some of the ISIL advances simply hasn't happened.

In a lot of the districts we've been studying throughout the security transition, the Afghan forces are fighting fiercely. Unfortunately, it means that the conflict has been escalating and there are more civilian casualties. But it also means that the Taliban will not take a lot of these districts without a fight. Unfortunately, that job of fighting insurgency is getting harder day by day. So it is going to be a really tough fight, but I do not so far see the sort of military collapse that we saw in parts of Iraq.