This week’s Atlantic Alliance defence ministerial started with a bang. On his way to Brussels, the United States’ Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, remarked off-the-cuff that the Atlantic Alliance would end its combat role in Afghanistan in 2013. This would represent a major turnaround of the alliance’s policy: the Lisbon Summit in 2010 had committed the Alliance to continuing combat operations until 2014. A week earlier, President Sarkozy had already announced a French pullback in 2013. This decision was taken after several French trainers died in an attack by a rogue Afghan soldier. Simultaneously, several media sources referred to a leaked Atlantic Alliance report providing a particularly gloomy picture of the state of the Afghan insurgency.
To many it seems that the Atlantic Alliance is going through a manic-depressive period. Less than a year after the alliance wrapped-up a reasonably effective air campaign aimed at dislodging the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, doom and gloom has descended once more over the political headquarters in Evere. The bleak prospects the Afghan campaign faces no doubt explain much of the atmospherics. Yet there may be more going on than what the recent daily headlines suggest. After all, the Afghanistan mission was always bound to result in something less than the precarious stability the alliance’s operations brought to the former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the announced end-date of 2014 left the alliance in an inherently vulnerable position. It would not seem that far-fetched to suggest that the suddenly announced withdrawal – and the creation of considerable ambiguity about what comes after – can also be read as an attempt to wrest the strategic initiative back and re-focus the alliance’s efforts elsewhere.
In many ways, the explicit end-date of 2014 was undesirable from an operational perspective. Above all, it provided the insurgency with the prospect they can realistically outlast Western forces and overthrow the Afghan government afterwards. The alliance’s planners therefore kept on insisting that transition to Afghan leadership would have to be ‘conditions-based’. Even at the strategic level, it is not clear how an end-date would help maintain public support if large amounts of blood and treasure continued being spilt for a purpose that had de facto been abandoned already.
The surprise decision to shake-up the transition timetable helps to pave the way to a much lighter but conceivably much longer footprint. By openly reconsidering agreed timetables, it effectively re-injects a factor of uncertainty in the planning of insurgents. In the run-up to the Chicago Summit, the debate on the nature of the Atlantic Alliance’s long-term partnership with the Afghans is set to intensify. The French Minister of Defence, for example, hinted at several questions being posed about the desirable size, funding and force structure of the Afghan National Army.
There is a growing awareness that the investment in Afghanistan needs to be sustainable for the long term and may therefore need to recalibration. At the same time, rumours about potential political accommodation of the insurgency continue to swirl. Accelerating the transition from a counterinsurgency posture to whatever may come after is therefore unlikely to significantly weaken the alliance’s operational prospects. The most important strategic effect, however, is the signal that the allies are keen on shifting their efforts elsewhere. In the case of the United States, the inclination to turn attention eastwards is well documented. Indeed, the strategic guidance to the Department of Defence released just a month ago emphasised the shift toward the Indo-Pacific zone.
Recent doctrinal development, such as the approval of the Joint Operational Access Concept, reinforce this signal. Combating Al Qaeda has not dropped of the United States’ radar screen, but the demise of Osama bin Laden has served to justify lowering its relative level of priority. Nearly three years after the White House tried coming to terms with the desirability of a counterinsurgency approach toward the Afghan conflict, the rationale for relying on intelligence-driven counterterrorism tactics seems to have been vindicated.
The European allies, in turn, are busy working their way through the lessons from the Libya campaign. Operation Unified Protector has once more underlined the extent to which the European dependency on American support has become deeply problematic. While France and the United Kingdom may have taken the lead in political terms, their inability to do so operationally has served as loud wake-up call. Thirteen years after the St. Malo summit, it turned out that there was no alternative to the Atlantic Alliance’s command chain for conducting a combined air operation. The heavy reliance on critical American enablers (e.g. intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition, air-air refuelling, and so on) and resupplies, furthermore, did not make for a pretty sight. At a time when military cuts are forcing European armed forces to make difficult choices, the message that European militaries have to invest in the future rather than conduct expensive operations has hit its target with high precision.
For the time being, the pressure on European armed forces is driven by budgetary constraints that have little to do with geopolitical circumstances. Yet if the Americans really follow-up on their declared intent to concentrate their resources elsewhere, it implies that, the Europeans may find themselves in a position where they need to take more responsibility for their own neighbourhood. This would prompt thinking about defence reform along different lines, i.e. not aimed at saving money but about designing an effective instrument for coping with tomorrow’s security environment. This debate can develop in many directions, but it has to start somewhere. Accelerating the Afghan campaign plan may just have provided such a starting point.