What’s the Plan? The NATO Coalition in Afghanistan


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles based on insights gleaned from Jason Campbell’s recent NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan that featured meetings with senior NATO and Afghan officials, members of Parliament, representatives from a number of international organizations, and prominent members of Afghan civil society. Read the first article here.


As of January 1, 2015, the nature of the NATO mission in Afghanistan will change dramatically. The transition to Resolute Support Mission (RSM) will remove all coalition forces from combat and concentrate them into only a handful of regional bases from which they will continue to provide mentorship and limited indirect support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Though a definitive reduction in the NATO mission’s size and scope, it would be a mistake to judge this phase as any less important. While the ANSF have made important strides, fighting the insurgency on their own will be a massive undertaking and enduring coalition support will be crucial. Senior officials of NATO troop-contributing nations must resist the temptation to prematurely head for the exits.

Little support for a time-defined RSM. During my recent trip to Afghanistan, there was a constant theme throughout all of our meetings and briefings: disagreement with stated U.S. plans to remove all of its troops from theater by the end of 2016. While I fully expected to hear some apprehension voiced in certain circles, I was struck by the unanimity of this sentiment across the spectrum of our interactions. In most cases the unease with the U.S. plan was offered without prompting. Many alluded to the need to shore up confidence among the Afghan population after a trying 2014. The long delay in the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement, a drawn out and at times divisive election dispute, and resulting economic stagnation combined to cultivate an air of general uneasiness. As one diplomat we met with argued, the United States “should rethink the length of RSM, not just from a security and political perspective, but a psychological one as well.”

I was also surprised to hear reports of poor coordination between the White House and other troop-contributing allies. For instance, one NATO official stated that Germany is (or at least was) willing to leave its troops in the northern part of the country for up to four years as part of RSM. Unfortunately, they were not consulted by the Obama administration during deliberations in Washington and were allegedly only informed of the final decision on the U.S. commitment shortly before it was announced. A recent story in Der Spiegel suggests even German Chancellor Angela Merkel questions the prudence of setting a two-year limit on RSM. Overall, the advisability of setting a two year limit on RSM has its detractors among senior officials in Afghanistan and at least one key ally.

No minor transition. While the transition of coalition forces away from a combat footing has been ongoing for the better part of two years, interactions with coalition elements impressed on me the dramatic scale and scope of what is about to happen in only a few weeks when RSM comes into effect on January 1. As of January 2013 there were just over 57,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and as of last month there were nearly 35,000. This number will soon drop to roughly 12,000. No wonder a senior military official asserted that 2014 marked the “largest year of change since we’ve been here.”

To facilitate such a significant change, NATO is transitioning to a “hub and spoke” network in which its Kabul-based headquarters will connect to four regional nodes: Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, and Bagram Airfield. At least that’s the plan. Delays in the signing of the BSA have reportedly contributed to complications in securing adequate troop commitments from some allies. A NATO official referred to “frantic efforts” to fill some important, though unspecified, requirement gaps. Should the requirement go unfulfilled, the expectation is that Kandahar Airfield would be at risk for early closure. This despite the fact that Kandahar rivals Bagram as the most strategically important regional base. Yet the force posture of RSM has been strongly influenced by enduring national caveats governing where certain forces are permitted to operate. Thus, the Germans (Mazar-e Sharif) and Italians (Herat) have become ensconced as the lead nations in their comparatively less hazardous regions. This leaves limited options for commanders to address limited but essential gaps around U.S. personnel in Kandahar and Bagram. Consequently, a shortfall of only a few hundred troops (calculated by subtracting U.S., German, and Italian commitments from the 12,000 RSM estimate) could result in a casualty of coalition warfare at an inopportune time.

Further complicating things for senior NATO leadership is the dysfunctional way in which the United States and, by extension, other members of the coalition conduct their force level arithmetic when drawing down. Logic would suggest that this would be driven by an assessment of on-the-ground goals and objective – otherwise known as a troop-to-task evaluation. Instead, commitments are negotiated in Washington with little if any recognition of how recommended modifications might drastically impact the proposed mission and perhaps with other considerations playing a motivating factor. It is at the very least suspect that the U.S. troop commitment was ultimately 9,800 rather than the 10,000 then-ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford requested last January. The fact is, low troop numbers combined with a desire to maintain a presence in multiple locations creates margins that are simply too tight for them not to be scrutinized with great care. If, for example, the force protection requirement at a place like Kandahar ends up 200 troops short, the entire base must be shut down and all personnel relocated. It would be incredibly unfortunate if the deficit of a few hundred troops forced the coalition to lose touch in such an important part of Afghanistan.

Gone are the RCs…prepare for the TAACs. As of a couple of weeks ago, the four remaining Regional Commands (RCs) have transitioned to Train, Advise, and Assist Commands (TAACs) and with this comes some significant changes. Among these, TAAC commanders will no longer “own” battle space after January 1. Rather, they will only be responsible for their respective headquarters. One question this brings up, according to a senior ISAF official, is what will happen in the rare event that a coalition unit has to “go operational” outside its base, such as a scenario where a drone crashes. Perhaps the most profound adjustment, however, will be coalition forces’ hindered freedom of movement. Going forward the coalition will continue to steadfastly adhere to the “Golden Hour” rule requiring that its forces never travel an hour beyond rotary-wing access to a Level II medical facility (one with basic surgical, laboratory, and imaging capabilities). In TAAC-North, where our group spent a day, this means that the coalition will be limited to traveling in what is referred to the “Mez Bubble” immediately surrounding the capital of Balkh province, Mazar-e Sharif. This is a huge departure from the days when RC-North held sway over nine provinces.

Final analysis. The imminent changes to the NATO mission in Afghanistan will be profound and, more crucially, carry unpredictable outcomes. After January 1, the removal of tens of thousands of coalition troops will trigger an inevitable period of adjustment as all sides involved in the conflict press for a new equilibrium that tilts in its favor. How long and violent this transition lasts and which side achieves the advantage will remain inextricably tied to the involvement of the international community, and in particular NATO, for the foreseeable future.

Despite the stakes involved, the message those in Afghanistan are receiving from the United States is, “We’re leaving in two years.” This guidance, along with the plan to halve troop levels after 2015, is not based on a thorough assessment nor is it supported by those on the ground dealing with these issues on a daily basis. It promotes hedging among Afghans and needlessly deprives ISAF leadership of strategic flexibility necessary to be effective in such a dynamic environment. Adopting a conditions-based strategy is prudent and need not be no-strings-attached, as some opponents suggest. What it requires is clearly articulated expectations for the Afghans and the willingness to adhere to your commitment should those expectations be met. With other international crises grabbing the headlines, it is imperative that the White House not lose sight of the unprecedented transition about to take place in Afghanistan. Eschewing strategic flexibility at this point would place greater risk on the hard-fought gains made over the past 13 years.

Up Next: The Afghan National Security Forces


Jason H. Campbell (@JasonHCampbell) is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of the RAND Corporation.


Photo credit: isafmedia (adapted by WOTR)