NATO leaders stuck to an upbeat script at their Lisbon summit during the weekend of Nov. 19-21, announcing a formal timetable aimed at ending combat operations in Afghanistan and leaving security duties in local hands by the end of 2014 provided, of course, that the Afghans are up to the task.
The target date pushes the endgame a couple of more years away, but it remains a goal, not a deadline, very much as Barack Obama's summer 2011 promise was. It does not mask the widening cracks in the alliance specifically, between U.S. military officials, on the one hand, who insist that the current counterinsurgency campaign needs more time to have an impact, and European troop contributors, on the other, who are skeptical of the strategy and looking for a face-saving way out. The Afghans are themselves divided, debating whether the presence of foreign troops is driving the conflict or the only thing keeping the Kabul government from total collapse.
NATO seemed to be responding to the agenda of the new leader of the allied contingent in Afghanistan. Since he assumed command of the coalition's 150,000 troops in late June, General David Petraeus has lobbied for more time to fight the Taliban, asserting that he and his soldiers will need years, not months, to achieve lasting results. Indeed, he has been delaying a handover of the campaign to Afghan forces in parts of the country. The members of the alliance in Lisbon pledged not to abandon Afghanistan to chaos. However, that commitment is not open-ended, because of plummeting support domestically and political calls to justify massive defense spending on an overseas venture with few clear gains. Dutch forces pulled out this year; the Canadians will leave next summer. In Lisbon, British Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged that 2015 was an absolute deadline for withdrawal, no matter what the country looks like at that point.
Reactions in the Afghan streets to the new target appeared to vary based on geography. In the south, intensified military operations have made people realize the very real costs of war. The threat of rolling violence has forced thousands from their homes, further disrupting social and economic rhythms. Nani Kaka, 50, the owner of a kebab restaurant in Kandahar city, says that while he expected coalition troops would be staying on, they should leave sooner rather than later. "We can make the country safer if the foreigners leave us alone," he says, calling it "good news" that a date has at least been set. Jan Muhammad, an elderly farmer in restive Ghazni province, maintains that foreign forces "have done nothing for us" over the past 10 years. "What difference will some more years make?" he asks, sweeping his hand at a crumbling adobe village.
Those surveyed in Kabul seem to think that 2014 is far too soon. Residents of the capital, a honeypot for foreign money, worry that a premature pullout would undo some of the socioeconomic advances made since the fall of the Taliban, leaving control in the hands of self-serving government officials. "It's the worst news ever," says Nisar Ahmad, 37, a taxi driver. "If the U.S. leaves, everything will go wrong. Just look at [the corruption] in government today. The Taliban will take over, and we will appreciate the time we have right now." He says U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan for at least another decade, if not longer. Khalid Azimi, 32, a shopkeeper, has an even bleaker outlook, worrying that the country will relapse into civil war "and there is nothing our government can do to stop it." Hameed Hamnawa, a 29-year-old college student, calls the 2014 withdrawal date a "slapdash decision ... which gives the Taliban more hope." His main concern is the preparedness of Afghan ground forces with no support from a virtually nonexistent Afghan air force.
As for the Taliban, it put out a statement calling the 2014 Lisbon timeline "irrational ... Because until then, various untoward and tragic events and battles will take place as a result of this meaningless, imposed and unwinnable war. They should not postpone withdrawal of their forces even be it for one day." The militants have long said they will not engage in talks with the Afghan government until foreign troops leave.
For some Afghans, the best development from Lisbon was the warming ties between NATO and Russia. With a heroin epidemic ravaging the country and fears that the instability in Afghanistan could spill over into some of the Central Asian republics along its borders, Moscow has reached out to the coalition by signing an agreement to expand the use of supply routes through Russia to Afghanistan. Russia is in discussions with the U.S. to provide helicopters and trainers to boost the Afghan military and has already delivered several shipments of small arms to the Interior Ministry. Despite some friction with the administration of President Hamid Karzai over its role in drug raids in October, there are plans for more joint operations. Azimi, the Kabul merchant, approves, because the drug trade fuels the Taliban insurgency and, he says, any help in combating it is most welcome so long as Russian troops don't return. So far, there are no such plans.
Yet bitter memories of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s lead some Afghans to be wary. "I can never trust them after what they did here," says Haji Ghafar, a mujahedin veteran in Ghazni who fought Russian troops. He is echoed by Manzoor Ahmad, 30, an employee of a foreign aid organization in Kandahar, who says Russian cooperation with NATO, however limited, would give the insurgents a stronger pretext for jihad and more fodder to attract new recruits. Ultimately, he argues, "the presence of Russia will have a bad effect on the trust people have toward Americans, even if their intentions are good." But with a resurgent Taliban and a fraying alliance, the NATO partners clearly see Russia's participation as a risk worth taking.
With reporting from Shah Barakzai / Kabul and Muhib Habibi / Kandahar