A new momentum for Afghanistan

From NATO, a transition but not an exit strategy

Italian soldiers with the NATO coalition take part in a change-of-command ceremony in Herat province in October.
Italian soldiers with the NATO coalition take part in a change-of-command ceremony in Herat province in October. (Altaf Qadri/associated Press)
By Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Friday, December 4, 2009


Foreign ministers from the 44 countries in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan are meeting here today to discuss the way forward for the mission. This year has not been an easy one for Afghanistan or for the countries sending troops. But a new phase of the international effort is beginning.

President Obama made an important speech this week in which he laid out America's strategy for this mission. He made a substantial commitment of resources, including more than 30,000 U.S. troops. And he made clear to any doubters that the United States is determined to do what it takes to finish the job.

But this is not just President Obama's war. We all face the same threats from what is happening in Afghanistan: threats from terrorism, from drugs, from extremism. This is an alliance effort, and we will finish it together. At this important moment in the evolution of our operation, NATO will demonstrate its unity and its strength once again.

There will be a substantial increase, in 2010, in the number of soldiers provided by the non-U.S. members of NATO: at least 5,000, and probably several thousand more. That is on top of the 38,000 or so non-U.S. troops already in Afghanistan. But this isn't just about troop numbers. It is about strategy. And our strategy is clear: to transfer responsibility for running their country to the Afghans, as soon as possible.

That means a transition in which Afghan forces take the lead and our forces move into a supporting role. I am pressing allies and partners to fully resource and finance our training mission. That is how we'll make the transition to Afghan leadership a reality, sooner. I'm confident that when the Afghan people and the citizens in nations that are contributing troops see this transition happening, starting next year, they will see the progress that inspires them to continue to support this mission.

To be clear, "transition" is not a code word for "exit strategy." It means transition to a different role. First, our soldiers will start to partner with Afghan forces at all levels, from the field to headquarters, to pass on the knowledge they need to stand on their own feet. When conditions are right -- when Afghan forces have the capabilities and the confidence -- we will move to the next phase, in which Afghan forces take the lead in planning and carrying out operations, with NATO forces backing them up. That is the way forward, and I'm confident we can start next year.

Foreign ministers will discuss all of this today, but talks will not be limited to the military operation. They will also focus on the broader political strategy, which includes what we expect from the new Afghan government. Good governance is the best way to close off the oxygen supply to the Taliban. After all that we have committed to this mission, we have the right to insist on it.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made some very clear and welcome statements. I'm pleased that investigations of corruption are underway. It's a good start and will help establish the credibility the Afghan people and the international community need to see. A conference to be held in January in London will be important in this regard as well, to help establish a new contract between the Afghan government and the international community.

I am confident that we will soon see new momentum in this mission. In 2010, there will be substantially more forces on the ground, focused on defending the Afghan people. We will start handing over lead security responsibility to Afghan forces, district by district, where conditions allow. There will be clear commitments, and I expect clear action, by the Afghan government to earn the support of its people. There will be more development assistance, starting with the $5 billion pledged by Japan. The civilian side of the whole effort will be stepped up as well, not least through the European Union Action Plan.

In the end, it comes down to this: When Taliban soldiers come to take a young Afghan to fight on their side, what will his father do? If he sees that the Taliban has no chance of winning, if he sees that his life is getting better and if he believes in his government, then he will say no. And the insurgency will lose. It's that simple. Those are the conditions we have to create, and next year we will start to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The writer is secretary general of NATO.

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