What NATO talks about when it talks about Afghanistan depends largely on who’s listening.
A series of carefully calibrated messages on the direction of the 9-year-old war, each aimed at a different audience, will emanate from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit beginning Friday in Lisbon.
To a war-weary European constituency: There’s an exit strategy.
To a conflicted American public, whose troops are bearing the brunt of rising battlefield casualties: Things are going better militarily, but it will still take some time.
To Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Please watch what you say.
And to the Taliban: Don’t get your hopes up.
The principal theme of the two-day gathering is “transition,” the notion that the Afghan army and police force should be able to take over primary security responsibility for most of the country by the end of 2014.
The Afghan security forces will total 250,000 members by year’s end, and intensive Western training efforts in recent months have focused on tasks as varied as fielding elite commandos to teaching illiterate police recruits — which is to say, nearly every last one of them — how to read.
Although the transfer of responsibility is already in its nascent stages in a few districts, the Lisbon summit is being painted as a formal start to that process.
This gives the governments of NATO nations something concrete to assure their restive publics that this unpopular war is not an open-ended one.
In the Netherlands, the coalition government collapsed because of disagreement over the withdrawal of troops; the prime minister at the time wanted to extend Dutch troops’ presence past this summer, but the other major party demurred. In Germany, Angela Merkel wants to keep a full complement of troops in Afghanistan until at least 2012, placing her on a collision course with the main opposition party, which insists that reductions start next year.
Public support for operations in Afghanistan has been dwindling across Europe, with leaders often bucking public opinion.
“The Europeans have been asking themselves the questions that Americans are now beginning to ask: ‘Why? What’re we there for? What exactly do we want to achieve?’ ” said Giles Merritt, director of Security & Defense Agenda, a Brussels-based think tank.
The shift of emphasis to a training mission has drawn some allies back into the fold. Canada, whose forces have spent years in deadly Kandahar province, says it will pull out its combat troops next year as scheduled, but promised this month to provide 1,000 trainers for three more years.
Plans for Western troop pullbacks are deliberately being kept fluid, and little publicized, for fear of painting a bull’s-eye on the districts and provinces in question.
But the most troublesome areas of the country will wait for last. Not at all coincidentally, those are the places where American troops are thickest on the ground: the country’s south and east, the Taliban insurgency’s traditional strongholds.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan, now numbering about 100,000, make up around two-thirds of the Western forces, and casualty figures roughly bear out that proportion. American fatalities so far this year represent 448 of 650 deaths among the NATO force, according to the website icasualties.org.
With more than a month remaining, 2010 has already been the war’s bloodiest year to date for Western forces. Even with the arrival of winter, which generally brings a drop-off in fighting, casualties can still rise on certain days; this week, five U.S. troops died in a single attack in eastern Afghanistan.
Even as the casualties continue to mount, American military officials in recent weeks have offered a rosier view of the fight. They point first to the clearing of key districts around Kandahar city where the Taliban had long reigned; and second, to the success of unprecedentedly intense targeted strikes over the last three months against the mid-level command structure of the Taliban and a key offshoot, the Haqqani network.
Both of those much-touted triumphs, though, have brought complications.
The Kandahar offensive, which originally was to have occurred in spring, was depicted by U.S. officials as a potential turning point in the war. Military officials now say it will not be clear until next spring whether the Afghan government can step in and provide a real presence, or at least one sufficient to rally a skeptical local populace.
Without that shift in local sentiment, Kandahar could become Marja writ large. The U.S. Marines-spearheaded offensive in that insurgent stronghold in Helmand province in February yielded an unambiguous early military success, followed by a lengthy and tortuous effort to prevent the insurgents from filtering back in and terrorizing residents, even as the effort to get much-needed government services in place stalled.
And then there is Karzai. A quietly urgent subtext in talks at the NATO summit will concern corruption in his government. Karzai, for his part, showed his longtime penchant for stirring the pot before any major public event: He infuriated senior American military officials with a broadside against coalition night raids on Afghan homes.
Aides to Karzai said the president’s comment Saturday in an interview with the Washington Post was merely reiterating long-stated concerns. But the timing, days before the NATO summit, reinforced the belief in some quarters that the Afghan leader is at best an erratic ally.
“We will find ways of talking to him about how certain matters might best be discussed in private,” said a Western diplomat who will be present at the Lisbon talks.
In recent days, the Obama administration has signaled strongly that previous pledges to begin drawing down troops in July 2011 were, and will continue to be, entirely conditions-based. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this month in Australia that the insurgency could be in for an unpleasant surprise if its leaders expect American troops to be pulling out in significant numbers next fall.
The Taliban leadership, meanwhile, has publicly rejected Karzai’s call for a political settlement. But it has revealed a potential chink in its armor: money to keep its fight going. A message this week on the eve of the important Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha, purportedly from Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammed Omar, sought funds for the insurgency.
It also expressed the belief that the Taliban would emerge victorious.
“The moment of defeat for the invaders,” he said, “has drawn near.”
King reported from Kabul and Chu from London.