NATO Afghanistan deliberations still in the future

Jüri Luik. PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

NATO allies know little about new plans the USA has for Afghanistan, says Minister of Defense Jüri Luik (IRL).

Proposals as to Estonia’s contribution in the upcoming mission have not been made. It should, however, be kept in mind how much the Americans have supported Estonia in connection with Russia’s upcoming Zapad exercise. Luik says it is logical for Estonia to demonstrate allied solidarity in NATO.

Talk of US and NATO plans to ship more troops to Afghanistan surfaced already in spring. What developments have taken place since then?

NATO declared in 2014 (when the ISAF mission was concluded and Resolute Support launched – ed.) that battle operations in Afghanistan were over. NATO is basically engaged in training and consulting there now. On different levels – consultation is happening on the level of division and corps – the highest tactical level, while there are also specific lower level training crews.

Among the latter is the Estonian team serving as part of a German framework unit training local field engineers. Estonia is present in Afghanistan on an on-going basis. Our presence is not what it used to be; however, we have never left.

Resolute Support is still in effect. However, the security situation in Afghanistan has steadily become more complicated. NATO has enough units there – both its own and US troops.

A separate US operation in Afghanistan is tied to NATO troops but is not directly controlled by the alliance. The Americans have a relatively broad supporting role – as concerns air support, special units etc.

The US mission has a battle component?

It has always been there. It has chiefly manifested in air support, use of drones and special units the activities of which we do not know in detail.

Taliban has pushed relatively hard, and the resources of local security forces have not been enough to keep the territory clean. Estimates suggest the Afghan government fully controls roughly 60 percent of its territory, maybe a little more. Around 10 percent is clearly in Taliban hands. The rest is a gray area where fighting rages on continuously. Especially in the south and east of the country.

As put by US and NATO commander Gen. John W. Nicholson, this has led to a stalemate. Additional US troops would immediately tip the scales in the government’s favor. And looking at the recent utterances of the US administration, that is what these additional resources are meant to achieve.

While the strategy proposed by President Trump does not really set itself apart from those of previous administrations, it does include a few interesting additional elements.

Such as?

One is definitely – and it has been the subject of heated debates in USA and NATO – whether the operation should have an end date. If we set an expiration date, we – as pointed out especially by Republicans – are basically sending Taliban the message that they need to hang in there until a fixed date after which they can just take over once allied troops ship out.

It will also fail to motivate the Taliban to negotiate as they believe they will have the upper hand as soon as the West pulls out. Trump has now said that he will not set a date, and that the fight will rage on for as long as it will.

The other visible difference is strong emphasis placed on regional activities. The key role in this lies with Pakistan the autonomous tribal areas of which hold a lot of Taliban units. Trump’s speech put clear pressure on Pakistan, down to hints of suspending economic aid etc.

It needs to be kept in mind that Pakistan also has an effect. Western, including US, troops are largely supplied through Pakistan. That is one reason past administrations have been very careful when dealing with Pakistan. Not to mention the country’s general strategic importance.

However, Trump has upped the stakes when it comes to Pakistan and been forewarning in his utterances. He has also been relatively clear on the role of India, as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan form a strategic triangle, and India is undoubtedly the one that has been paid too little attention in this regional debate.

How should India come into play?

One reason why Pakistan is accused of supporting Taliban is tied to ongoing strategic tension between Pakistan and India. To an extent, this manifests in a replacement war on the territory of Afghanistan. Both see Afghanistan as either an opportunity or a risk – to be used against one or the other. It is surely an aspect to be reckoned with.

The Indian embassy has long been one of the primary targets of terrorists in Kabul?

India’s role merits attention. On the other hand, India has actively supported the Afghan government and plays a positive role in this regard.

They would not contribute in terms of their military?

Definitely not.

How significant is Russia’s role in supporting anti-government forces in Afghanistan? It seems they are communicating with the official authorities in Kabul on the one hand while pursuing other agendas on the other.

Russia pursues a lot of activity in Afghanistan that we don’t know about. Looking at their public efforts, strong emphasis has been placed on propaganda that aims to weaken the West’s narrative and its political influence in Afghanistan.

One of the main narratives Russia uses is that Taliban is a real force in Afghan society that can fight ISIS; that it is a national movement that at times plays a positive role, no other force can push ISIS out of Afghanistan, the government’s forces are helpless, and the West is not paying enough attention, which is why it is necessary to keep in touch and negotiate with Taliban. It is a narrative that belittles the actions of Afghan security forces and NATO in the area.

If both USA and NATO are talking about more troops, what are they talking about exactly, and how far along are these deliberations?

Both NATO and the US – whereas we cannot mechanically separate the two – are convinced that what we have been doing since the end of battle operations (December 31, 2014 – ed.) is not working well enough. Therefore, we need to change strategy and tactics.

An important element in this is that Afghanistan currently has a pro-West president in Ashraf Ghani. He is far more open to activities by the international community both in military and civilian terms than his predecessor.

[The previous president] Hamid Karzai became very critical of NATO toward the end of his term. It surely hastened the decision to scale down participation. Now, ways are sought to strengthen the Afghan presence using different forces.

One path NATO regards as crucially important is boosting consultations and the power of instructors. Looking at the actions of the Americans, they clearly also want to boost the West’s military role.

These deliberations are still ahead of NATO. While the Americans have plotted their general course, they have not explained in enough detail the strategy they have opted for. Here, we cannot only look at Trump’s speech that does not include any figures but must perceive a combination with a speech by Defense Secretary James Mattis that is somewhat more detailed. There can be no doubt in that the US will supply the bulk of the force for any potential operation.

We cannot say defense ministries of NATO countries have much knowledge of the Americans’ new plans.

Have the Americans not yet attempted to get an idea of what they might ask of Estonia?

I cannot say we have received a request calling for our participation. It is too soon to speculate on that.

It is clear that Estonia is an ally to the US. Looking at the situation regarding Zapad, the Americans have stationed a company in all three Baltic states and brought two combat brigades to Poland and ships to the Baltic Sea.

We need to keep in mind the role Americans play in keeping us safe. NATO is a platform where countries can demonstrate mutual solidarity. As concerns the future, we will have to wait for the Americans’ vision of events.