BACKGROUND: The October 22-23 NATO defense ministers’ meetings in Brussels failed to make much progress in clarifying how the alliance will avert defeat in what has become the most important military campaign in its history. After discussing the mission among themselves, the allies held a special session with the partner countries contributing troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. But the meeting could not commit the alliance to a strategy after the ISAF mission ends next year. Instead, they adopted a strategic planning assessment outlining command, control, and capabilities they might need for a future campaign, without specifying troop numbers. Only the German government has committed a large troop total of some 600-800 soldiers, but Berlin’s influence in NATO is constrained due to its protracted formation of a new coalition government.
The Afghanistan stalemate was perhaps unavoidable, since NATO is awaiting conclusion of the negotiations surrounding the Afghanistan-U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) before finalizing its own post-2014 role and force commitment in Afghanistan. According to press reports, Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai resolved many disagreements during Kerry’s surprise visit to Kabul earlier this month. The remaining sticking points appear to be the freedom of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to execute counterterrorism operations without advance Kabul’s approval, and Washington’s refusal to make an explicit commitment to fight for Kabul in any conflict with Pakistan. As in many alliances, the external guarantor fears entrapment in a conflict that does not serve its interests, while the local partner fears strategic abandonment in the face of its most serious security concerns. If these issues can be finessed, then the Afghanistan Parliament can ratify the pact with the United States and NATO can negotiate its own Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan.
Although the publicly released numbers of possible U.S. troops in Afghanistan continue to fall, and their perceived role is shifting from embedded mentoring of Afghan units to supervising disbursement of Western military assistance, concluding the BSA is important due to its multiplier effect. If U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, other countries and NGOs will keep their personnel there; without a BSA or U.S. troop presence, Western forces and NGOs will likely join the rush out of Kabul, even as they finally seem to be making critical progress on key metrics. The United States and NATO must make their post-2014 force commitments to Afghanistan well before next year’s alliance summit in London to avert the latter self-destructive dynamic.
IMPLICATIONS: The issue of NATO’s staying power in Afghanistan has gained growing importance due to its likely impact (reinforcing or negating) on the growing perception that the West is getting out of the Eurasian security business.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that by next July, all U.S. troops will leave Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. The base, situated on the outskirts of Bishkek, has served as the most important transit center for NATO troops entering and leaving Afghanistan by air. Now Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) air base in Romania will take over that role. The decision makes sense on logistical grounds. MK is three times farther from Afghanistan than Manas, but is located on the coast of the Black Sea and has superior connections to Eurasian air, rail and sea transport. However, Romania is already a loyal NATO member; earlier this week saw the groundbreaking on a new NATO missile defense base in that country. What MK lacks is any visibility in Central Asia.
In contrast, the Russian military recently announced it would double the size of its combat aviation contingent in Kyrgyzstan, reinforcing the sense of Western retreat and abandonment in Central Asia. Since Kyrgyzstan’s parliament again voted to end the U.S. lease this July, Russia has accelerated delivery of a US$ 1.1 billion arms package and written off much of Kyrgyzstan’s debt. Although many would welcome a renewed Russian commitment to Kyrgyzstan’s security as a means to buttress one of Eurasia’s weakest countries against a potential Islamist onslaught after NATO’s pullback, the simultaneous U.S. decision to end its bidding war with Moscow and vacate Manas and the Russian decision to enhance its regional military presence will reinforce the perception left by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that the United States, and by extension NATO, will wield reduced military power in Eurasia.
The Central Asian countries have been good partners of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and for good reason; Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan border Afghanistan, while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are located nearby. Their governments share concerns that renewed Taliban control over parts of Afghanistan would fuel regional Islamist militancy. Muslim extremist organizations linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda have targeted all Central Asian regimes. To varying degrees, all Central Asian governments would like NATO to retain some military presence to dilute the prospects of a Russian-Chinese condominium, or conflict, which could grow in a regional security vacuum. While the West may be unable to project sufficient power to balance the two regional hegemons, a NATO presence buffers the destabilizing prospects of Moscow and Beijing trying to establish a new post-2014 security regime for Central Asia by themselves. It is not hard to imagine the two great powers making resource deals at Central Asians’ expense or Russia and China clashing over competing energy assets or backing different armed proxies in Afghanistan.
In the South Caucasus, NATO and the EU are seen as helping prevent Russian-Iranian cooperation at the expense of the other Caspian countries. In addition, Georgia perceives NATO as a vital partner against renewed Russian aggression, while Azerbaijan worries about being left to sue for peace with Moscow, Tehran, or both. Armenia also favors a strong U.S. role in the region to enhance Yerevan’s bargaining leverage with Moscow and Tehran.
In addition to Moscow’s de facto annexation of Georgian territories and pressure on Azerbaijan to constrain its security ties with the West, Russia compelled Armenia to abandon years of negotiations on an Association Agreement with the EU to instead join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. At the same time, through its ineffective tactics in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, the Russian government has transformed a struggle for national self-determination into a region-wide jihad that could present a variety of security challenges to neighboring states.
Iran is no stranger to the Caucasus, which at various times was under the control of the Persian Empire and the subsequent Iranian state. Like Moscow, Tehran would exploit any security vacuum created by a Western withdrawal from the region. Iran could very well punish each state in various ways for their past enforcement of Western sanctions against Tehran. However, Azerbaijan’s secular domestic policies and demographic connections with Iran increase Baku’s vulnerability.
CONCLUSIONS: It is essential to counter the abandonment narrative in Eurasia, because current perceptions are already leading regional players to hedge against the expected consequences of a diminished NATO role. The weaker Central Asian states are pondering whether to align with Russia, China or both, or conversely, induce them to compete for their affection. Whatever the outcome of the current nuclear negotiations, Iranians foresee a relaxation of regional sanctions enforcement and the potential for a new eastern orientation. Local democrats and Western sympathizers are losing influence to regional actors more hostile to Western values. NATO needs to reaffirm and clarify its commitment to Afghanistan’s post-2014 security while working with the EU to complement the Union’s economically oriented policies in the South Caucasus with a security dimension.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.