Since the Afghan war began, NATO and Afghanistan have become inextricably intertwined. The linkage culminated at last year’s NATO summit where the 60th anniversary of the alliance sparked the assertion that Afghanistan could be the alliance’s make-or-break test of the 21st century, despite other looming challenges.
This year’s summit in Lisbon, Portugal, meanwhile, was billed as a turning point in the war and the beginning of the transition process. This past weekend, members formally agreed to the end of combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014. But setting a timetable is only one key component of this process; having a competent security force to hand responsibility off to is the other. Thus, NATO’s mission to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) is just as integral to the endgame.
Earlier this month, the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A), which provides and better coordinates existing training of the ANA and ANP, celebrated its first anniversary. Over the first year of the mission, there have been some notable positive outcomes, namely substantial growth in number of both the ANA and the ANP. But there have also been some notable challenges, like corruption and illiteracy, which are hindering the effort. All in all, a robust effort is still needed to create a viable Afghan security force. Yet the program still needs nearly 1,000 more trainers to be able to fully complete the development of the forces.
The importance of getting the training component of the Afghan strategy right was made even clearer by the findings of the Asia Foundation’s poll “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” which is the broadest public opinion poll in the country. Among them, this year’s poll showed the continuing influence that the security situation is having on the attitudes of the Afghan public, especially when it comes to whether they think Afghanistan is headed in the right direction. The 47 percent of respondents who said the country is moving in the right direction (which was up from 38 percent in 2008 and 42 percent in 2009) mainly attributed that view to a “the perception of good security.” Conversely, though, 44 percent of the respondents who said that the country was headed in the wrong direction cited insecurity as the main reason.
The ANA and ANP get mixed reviews as well. While the majority of respondents believe they are largely effective, they also think that the ANA and ANP are “unprofessional and poorly trained and require the support of foreign troops.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has expressed regret that a formal training effort did not begin sooner. The challenge of that, though, may not be the time wasted as much as the momentum that could be lost. In particular, our European allies, who are considered the best able to contribute more resources to training the army and police, have been growing skeptical about continuing their missions in Afghanistan. Now, working with smaller defense budgets, and facing a new age of austerity and increasing domestic unease over the Afghan war, it may become even more difficult for these countries to keep their training commitments.
The Economist characterized the abundance of agreement at the Lisbon meeting as “a rowless summit.” Symbolically, this was important. But just after the summit ended, a NTM-A review reportedly warned that transitioning control to Afghan forces “would not happen with the current shortfall of hundreds of experts needed to train the local police and army.” Thus, there are likely rows to come, and NATO’s mettle will be tested by its ability to secure continued commitments for Afghanistan from its reluctant members.