NATO in Afghanistan: Do they stay or do they go?

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will be able to withdraw its troops without much loss of face. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will be able to withdraw its troops without much loss of face. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

Russia tries to assert its position as the U.S. plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Although the US has announced withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, it seems as though they are there to stay. What their status and rights will be and, most importantly, the reasons they will be staying are increasingly questions of concern for Afghanistan’s neighbors: Russia, China and the countries of Central Asia.

An agreement on strategic cooperation between Washington and Kabul is to be signed shortly before or on the fringes of the NATO summit in Chicago in May, according to an announcement made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 22 after her talks with the Afghan foreign minister. The agreement should, on the one hand, allow the U.S. to withdraw from the longest war in its history without much loss of face. For U.S. President Barack Obama, this is particularly important on the eve of the U.S. presidential elections. The U.S. has lost 2,000 soldiers and $500 billion in Afghanistan and the counters are still rolling.

But saving face is not an easy task. There is no question of a victory and, in drawing up the agreement with Kabul, the U.S. has entered into official negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. In spite of 11 years of occupation, the influence of the Taliban outside Kabul itself is considerable, and President Hamid Karzai’s regime may collapse the day after the Americans withdraw. So the agreement on strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Afghanistan will probably envision some American military facilities remaining there.

“Karzai would like the bases to remain, as he wants to stay in power beyond 2014, and so does the Loya Jirga [the council of Afghan national and tribal representatives]. The Americans themselves want to retain their bases in order to shore up their influence in Central Asia and on the Caspian, where oil and gas resources are plentiful. In addition, the bases in Afghanistan make it possible to keep China, Russia and Iran at bay. In other words, there are economic and geostrategic reasons and the U.S. will not easily surrender the Karzai regime to the Taliban,” wrote Viktor Korgun, head of the Afghanistan Center at the Oriental Studies Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The issue of bases seems to be settled, which is beginning to worry Russia. Moscow has proposed that the UN maintain control over the foreign troops in Afghanistan after the NATO force withdraws in 2014. This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov touched on the topic at least twice. “If military presence in the country has to be preserved, then fulfillment of the Security Council mandate must continue. If somebody does not want to fulfill the mandate, believing that they have already done so, but intends to deploy and preserve military bases, this is not logical. I also believe that the territory of Afghanistan must not be used to create any military facilities that might concern third countries,” he said in an interview with Afghan TV channel TOLO.

In a nutshell, Moscow’s position is that, if the U.S. maintains its military presence in Afghanistan, it should get a mandate for this from the UN in the shape of a Security Council resolution, which, incidentally, would have to assess what has been accomplished in Afghanistan during the 11 years of war. Viktor Korgun said: “NATO presence deters terrorism in the region and Russia is not interested in early U.S. or NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The police functions must be carried out, especially since there is a UN mandate for this. But we are not interested in NATO staying in the region as a military force.”

The format and scale of continued U.S. and NATO military presence will apparently be determined at the Chicago NATO summit, which will be devoted to Afghanistan. Yet the status of these troops is unlikely to please the neighboring countries. “We are interested in a neutral Afghanistan,” said Lavrov. But in reality, NATO will move a step closer to Russia’s borders, which might cause more friction.

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