ISAF troops on patrol in Afghanistan. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Australian officials have refuted Tuesday's unexpected announcement about an early withdrawal from Afghanistan. During discussions with NATO officials on Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr voiced a renewed commitment to keep forces in Afghanistan until 2014.
Australia is not an official member of NATO, but it contributes 1,550 troops to the organization's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. NATO has predicted that ISAF troops can safely hand over combat responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2014.
During a round of NATO-led discussions in Brussels, Carr maintained that a secure transition may be achievable before 2014. All of us, however, must continue to be present in support of the ANSF and be combat-ready to do so until the transition is finally complete at the end of 2014, he said.
His comments disaffirmed Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard's Tuesday announcement about an early withdrawal. In a speech to the Australian Strategic Police Institute, she had promoted a timetable that had most Australian troops returning in time for Australia's 2013 federal elections.
She suggested Australia would present the accelerated withdrawal plan to officials during a NATO summit in Chicago this May. I am now confident that Chicago will recognize mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy -- a crucial point when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan.
Her announcement raised concerns that other NATO-allied nations might follow suit and pledge to bring troops home ahead of schedule in response to domestic political pressure.
Currently, about 130,000 NATO troops from over 50 different nations are serving in Afghanistan. Over 90,000 of those are from the United States. Another 9,500 come from the United Kingdom, followed by 4,818 from Germany, according to the AFP. Many countries are pursuing a drawdown of their military presence in Afghanistan well before the combat mission officially ends.
These forces are working to equip and train the ANSF, which has about 164,000 members, so that it can maintain order and defend Afghanistan against insurgencies, al Qaeda attacks and other threats.
The ISAF has made progress in the southern provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, the BBC reports. But there is still instability in northern areas where increasing insurgent activities, an influx of Central Asian militant groups, and a network of constantly shifting alliances among Afghan warlords are all hampering efforts to promote stability.
Meanwhile, international public support for the military presence in Afghanistan has been declining for years. A poll conducted in Australia last year found that 62 percent of the public there wanted Australian troops out of Afghanistan. A survey in Britain found that 58 percent of the public was not sure what their troops hoped to achieve there. And in the United States, a March Gallup poll found that 50 percent of the American public wanted to speed up withdrawal.
These surveys belie the fact that Australia, the United States and Great Britain once made up the strongest base of Western support for NATO's presence in Afghanistan, according to 2008 research by the Pew Research Center.
Now that many ISAF contributors are approaching major elections -- including Australia, France and the United States -- public demands for military withdrawals will be hard to ignore. On the other hand, there are concerns that a premature drawdown could have disastrous effects for Afghanistan.
Polls conducted by the New America Foundation in 2011 show that most Afghans in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where many ISAF troops are stationed, have a negative view of foreign interference but recognize that an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops would leave the country vulnerable.
While the respondents are split between support for the government and the Taliban, the respondents primarily blame ISAF, Pakistan, Iran, and India, as well as global jihadists such as al Qaeda for the insecurity in their country, said the report. Nevertheless, there is a strong demand for the United States to play a constructive and potentially unique role up to and beyond the 2014 transition of ISAF.
Amid military and civilian casualties, cultural misunderstandings leading to conflicts, and outbursts of violence on all sides, some analysts doubt that ISAF is on track to transfer control to ANSF as soon as 2014. But now that the Afghanistan conflict has lasted for over a decade, incidents like Australia's abrupt U-turn indicate the growing political difficulties of adhering to an international commitment.
NATO officials will meet in Chicago this May to discuss the plans for an Afghanistan troop withdrawal, among other defense issues.