End of NATO’s war in Afghanistan? Not so fast

The mission, now 13 years running, has a new name but it is far from over, says Steve Saideman.
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January 2, 2015
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In light of NATO’s formal withdrawal from Afghanistan this week, here are five points to keep in mind when it comes to the so-called end of this war:

1. The war, obviously, is not over.  It is not even over for the Americans since the U.S. is leaving 11,000 troops in Afghanistan.  While most are doing training and providing logistics, some are Special Operations Forces, and will be allowed to engage in combat.  So, this is might mean the end of U.S. (and other outside) conventional forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan, but it is not the end of combat for the U.S. and other SOF providers.

2. This is not the first time that a mission has changed rather than ended.  The classic case is Bosnia, which went from the Implementation Force [IFOR] to the Stabilization Force [SFOR] after the first year, so that Bill Clinton's promise of a one-year mission could be met; and then it went from SFOR to European Force [EUFOR] to keep the promise that NATO went in to Bosnia together and would leave together even if it really meant that the U.S and Canada were leaving and the Europeans were stuck.  So, yes, missions changing names to give lip service to promises is nothing new.  The moves in Afghanistan this month are very significant indeed, but the desire to meet various promises means overselling the meaning of yesterday.  Resolute Support is NATO's new name for its continued role here, which is a lousy name, but looks good compared to the American replacement of OEF with OFS (oh for F's sake?): Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

3. Which leads to more overselling.  We have plenty of speeches talking about completing the mission, accomplishing goals, and so on.  Obviously, Afghanistan is not in great shape, with 2014 being a year of many civilian casualties and much bleeding by the Afghan security forces.  It is not clear whether they can keep it up.  But one must say nice stuff as one takes down flags and hands over bases and such.  It may be the case that the Afghan forces can hold the line (as it were).  We don't know.  For most countries involved, the mission was more about supporting an ally than about accomplishing something in Afghanistan.  For these countries, the mission was mostly a success.

4. This week is similar to and distinct from the end of the U.S. effort in Iraq in 2011.  We are leaving mid-war with the future very much uncertain, so that is similar.  But the U.S. is not really leaving, as the 11,000 American troops left in country will be doing meaningful stuff, unlike the complete departure in Iraq in 2011.  One of the reasons I resist calling the effort in Afghanistan an occupation is that the intervention there, contra to Iraq, had much more support from key parts of the country.  So, the politicians in Afghanistan were actually trying to get their leader to agree to keeping the Americans around for as long as possible, which is very much distinct from Iraq, where it was politically impossible to support a continued American presence.  It is just frustrating that it seems like Afghanistan got the President it needed way late in the game (too early to tell, of course).

5. Finally, and most self-centeredly, yes, NATO and Afghanistan is still relevant.  Why?  Because I say so.  No, because the dynamics in the book apply to alliance efforts elsewhere and to coalitions everywhere (such as in the skies over Iraq and Syria), not to mention the comparative civil-military relations of advanced democracies are still in play and always will be.

An earlier version of this piece appeared here.