Transition and Withdrawal Timelines
In the summer of 2011, the Obama administration announced a broad time frame for the end to the war in Afghanistan. The schedule called for the initial withdrawal of the 30,000 “surge” troops in 2012, reducing the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) to 68,000 by year’s end. The remaining NATO forces were then expected to begin transferring combat operations to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) before ultimately withdrawing by the end of 2014. This February, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. and its NATO partners had advanced the deadline for the transition phase by a full year. General John Allen, ISAF commander, elaborated, explaining that four of five geographic “tranches” will complete transition by the end of summer 2013. The fifth and final tranche will then move into transition in fall of 2013. At that point, NATO will technically “be in support of the ANSF as they move into the lead for security across the country.”
However, despite a detailed timeline for transition, NATO leadership have yet to determine a more specific schedule for the removal of the remaining 68,000 NATO troops. Panetta has said only that some NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan in a “training, advise, and assist role” through 2014. How many and for how long remains to be determined; in response to speculation, the White House has denied NATO will formulate further plans at the Chicago Summit, insisting that leaders intend to focus exclusively on the transition strategy.
For his part, General Allen has said he will reassess the situation in the fall once the surge troops have been removed, and only then will he advise the administration on further withdrawals. Whatever his assessment, NATO must first reestablish relations and negotiate for sincere cooperation from Pakistan before a decision can be announced – a process which will require deft diplomacy and compromise beyond a basic “wait-and-see” approach.
According to Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, Pakistan is “in a strange position,” with conflicting domestic and security interests in NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. “The narrative internally [in Pakistan],” Dr. Weinbaum told the Diplomatic Courier, “is that when foreign forces leave the region, things will get better,” because the Pakistani insurgency will lessen. At the same time, the government of Pakistan is extremely uneasy about a withdrawal in which foreign forces leave too quickly. “They don’t want chaos.”
A preferable outcome for Pakistan would be an Afghan government that includes the Taliban while maintaining a strong role for the northern elements that allied with NATO in 2001. Shuja Nawaz, a political and strategic analyst and Director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council of the United States, gives a similar assessment, telling the Diplomatic Courier that the Pakistani government is looking for a “finely tuned arrangement” for post-war Afghanistan that includes some level of Taliban representation.
Pakistan’s biggest fear, according to Weinbaum and Nawaz, is an Afghan civil war. A war could split the country, leaving the Taliban with control of the largely Pashtun border region with Pakistan. Such a split could result in “reverse safe havens” for the Pakistani Taliban and other anti-government insurgent groups, says Nawaz, undermining Pakistani national security.
Yet while a negotiated power sharing arrangement with the Taliban is in Pakistan’s interest, their cooperation with NATO is far from assured. Throughout the war, Pakistan has maintained dueling loyalties to NATO as well as the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Fearful of being left out from a reconciliation process, Pakistan appears to be taking a similar dual approach to initial discussions between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban appeared to be on the horizon in January when Taliban representatives traveled from Pakistan to Qatar to meet with U.S. officials and discuss preliminary trust-building measures. According to a former Taliban minister and member of the Afghan High Peace Council in the New York Times, Pakistan “definitely supported this and is also helping.” Otherwise, Pakistani security forces could have arrested the delegates in Pakistan as they did a Taliban official who began secret talks with the Afghan government in 2010.
Instead, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani and former spy chief General Shuja Pasha took trips to Qatar in February to meet with negotiators, seeming to suggest willingness to support the talks. But a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggests that Pakistan is also encouraging the increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan to “hasten the pace of the international troop withdrawal” and ensure “a central role in shaping the post-transition political order.” Taken together, this seemingly contradictory approach is likely intended to highlight Pakistan’s ability to undermine or lend credibility to the reconciliation process and thereby increase pressure on the U.S. to reserve a seat at the negotiating table.
In late March, the Taliban suspended the talks entirely, stalling whatever progress was made towards while further strengthening Pakistan’s position and complicating the development of a withdrawal timeline. Resumption of talks is “the only feasible way to wind down the war and achieve the 2014 deadline,” former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Maleeha Lodhi wrote in a recent op-ed. With time running out, “the pace of the Afghan reconciliation effort will need to quicken if the aim is to align this with the transition that is just two years away.” Underscoring Pakistan’s significance, Lodhi writes that getting the process back on track will require “cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad and normalization of the uneasy relationship between Pakistan and the U.S.”
The prospect of normalization remains distant, however, as recommendations begin to emerge from Pakistan’s parliamentary review. As expected, the committee has taken a hard line against U.S. counterinsurgency tactics in Pakistan, which will be major hurdles for U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on an exit strategy for Afghanistan. The committee has called for a complete halt to U.S. drone strikes and special operations raids within Pakistani borders, as well as a requirement for all foreign security contractors and their activities to be "transparent and subject to Pakistani law.”
The issue of drone strikes, the Obama administration’s preferred weapon against insurgents in Pakistan, could be the major point of contention and leverage for Pakistan. According to reports of a January meeting between CIA director David Petraeus and General Pasha, Pakistan is unwilling to negotiate on the issue. Petraeus reportedly offered to give advance notice of attacks and impose new limits on permissible targets, but Pasha flatly refused to accept the concessions, insisting on a complete halt to the strikes.
U.S. officials have said they will not consider ceasing the drone program, but the demand could still directly influence the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The U.S. has greatly increased the volume of strikes in the last three years and killed thousands of insurgents, but much of the Pakistani population are furious at what are seen as repeated violations of Pakistani sovereignty and the reckless killing of Pakistani citizens. According to Weinbaum, if Pakistan continues to insist on a zero-tolerance drone policy, the long-term situation in Afghanistan could become even less tenable, pushing NATO towards a more rapid withdrawal.
A second major issue between the U.S. and Pakistan is the use of supply routes through Pakistan, which until November transported nearly half of all non-lethal NATO supplies into Afghanistan. In response to the NATO border raid in November however, Pakistan’s government closed the routes and called for a “total reset” in relations. Since then, the review committee has recommended a “thorough revision” of the agreement governing the 1,000-mile supply route and the imposition of tariffs.
With billions of dollars of NATO equipment and soldiers spread throughout one of the most isolated regions in the world, the reopening of this logistics network will be critical to a successful withdrawal. As Weinbaum points out, denying access to the supply routes will only slow the withdrawal process down, but if Pakistan can tolerate a slower the withdrawal, the supply routes provide yet another critical point of leverage.
In light of these obstacles, together with the suspension of Taliban talks and the continuing parliamentary review, the diplomatic distance to be covered is still vast if the U.S. and NATO are to consider successfully withdrawing in 2014, and the likelihood of that distance being covered before by the NATO Summit is remote.
Expectations for NATO 2012 and Beyond
The good news for NATO going into the Chicago Summit is that the U.S. and Pakistan have begun talking again. This March, in the highest-level meeting in the year since the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, Obama and Gilani met briefly in Seoul where they vowed to restore the damaged alliance. The following day, General Allen, CENTCOM commander General James Mattis, and Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, met for the first time since a NATO air raid in November killed 25 Pakistani soldiers and further devastated relations.
There is also some possibility that Pakistan will have a presence in Chicago, wherever the review stands at that point. As an official “NATO non-member ally,” Pakistan could not participate in the NATO talks, but a delegation to engage in sideline negotiations is “desirable” nonetheless, according to Nawaz.
Nawaz also believes that talks between the U.S. and the Taliban could resume prior to the summit. Pakistan has a strong interest in the resumption of talks, and U.S. officials have expressed confidence that the suspension is a tactical play in response to the burning of Koran’s by NATO forces and the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. The Taliban has not dismissed the possibility of resuming talks or suggested the suspension is permanent.
However, the reality remains that until Pakistan fully reengages with the U.S. and NATO and makes its position on withdrawal clear, there will be a significant strategic blind spot restricting the development of a realistic timeline for a comprehensive endgame in Afghanistan. This remains unlikely to be resolved before the summit, as Pakistan’s opposition parties have stalled the debate in parliament. Currently, there is very little political value in pushing for negotiations with Washington.
The U.S. will thus continue awaiting the results of the parliamentary review before the troubled partners can begin negotiating in good faith and a timeline can be determined. The success of that endgame will then depend on a negotiated agreement with the Taliban, which will also require a clearly articulated policy from Pakistan. To withdraw without a Pakistan-approved negotiated settlement would risk continued Afghan civil strife that all parties hope to avoid and will struggle to prevent long after NATO’s Chicago Summit.
Boris Maguire is a Production Associate for a DC-based non-profit where he works on a State Department-funded partnership initiative with major Pakistani news networks. He previously served on the staff of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, assisting with congressional hearings and oversight investigations of military contracts in South Asia. He also spent a year as a high school teacher in the Dominican Republic. Boris completed the Congressional Security Scholars program at the Truman National Security Project and received a BA in Political Science and History from Duke University.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.