The departure of all western military forces in Afghanistan could come sooner than expected as a result of the recent surge in “green on blue” killings that have sapped morale and increased mistrust, admitted NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The United States-led mission had originally been slated to close at the end of 2014, but that date could be pushed up in light of recent events and overall mission fatigue with an assignment that began following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.
“From now until the end of 2014 you may see adaptation of our presence,” Rasmussen said in an interview with The Guardian. “Our troops can redeploy, take on other tasks, or even withdraw, or we can reduce the number of foreign troops. From now until the end of 2014, we will see announcements of redeployments, withdrawals or drawdown … If the security situation allows, I would not exclude the possibility that in certain areas you could accelerate the process.”
Rasmussen conceded that the killings of almost 50 allied troops this year in “green on blue” attacks – Afghan security forces turning on their trainers and mentors – had damaged the relationship between the international forces and the Afghan police and military.
“There’s no doubt insider attacks have undermined trust and confidence, absolutely,” he said.
NATO aims to have an Afghan security force of 352,000 taking over responsibility for the country in just over two years when combat operations are scheduled to end.
There continues to be much debate among analysts as to what has been behind the stream of “green on blue” attacks, but NATO officers on the ground are reported to have ascribed them mainly to disgruntled and embittered Afghan security forces with grudges against their western mentors.
Rasmussen conceded there may have been some such cases, but NATO has concluded from intelligence that the attacks have more to do with a Taliban strategy of infiltration of the Afghan security structures in an effort to sow distrust and confusion.
“It’s safe to say that a significant part of the insider attacks are due to Taliban tactics … Probably it is part of a Taliban strategy,” he said.
Rasmussen added that some of the killings had been carried out by Taliban infiltrators disguised as Afghan police or soldiers.
The task of pulling out more than 120,000 troops from forbidding and frequently hostile terrain will be a challenge, but General John Allen, the U.S. overall commander of the operations, is expected to deliver a report with his military recommendations.
“Political decisions will be taken based on his recommendations as to how we will adapt to the transfer of lead responsibility to the Afghans,” he said. “The pace will very much depend on the security situation on the ground.”
Rasmussen stressed that any accelerated rate of withdrawal should not be seen as “a race for the exits”.
Some U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan following 2014 under a bilateral “strategic partnership” deal struck between Washington and Kabul.