NATO and Afghanistan

In advance of the NATO summit meeting on Afghanistan, American officials are claiming real progress in the fight against the Taliban. “Every day we’re gaining traction,” Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters last week. There is improvement, but we are skeptical that the situation is that encouraging.

The Taliban continue to strike with impunity. Central and local governments are riddled with corruption — and still driving Afghans back toward the extremists. According to The Times’s Alissa Rubin, ethnically based militias are reorganizing, raising fears the country could devolve into civil war once NATO forces leave.

While the Chicago summit meeting, which starts on Sunday, is supposed to focus on the alliance’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan, there is an enormous amount that must be done in the 31 months before all NATO combat troops withdraw.

An improved Afghan National Security Force is expected to soon reach a peak of 352,000 troops. Afghans lead nearly half of the operations with NATO partners; night raids, with Afghans now fully in the lead, have taken many skilled insurgents off the battlefield.

And, as American officials have eagerly noted, some 260 of 403 districts — covering 65 percent of the population — are now secured primarily by Afghan forces or in transition to Afghan control. But Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, the Taliban base and main focus of the 2010 surge, remain heavily contested. A recent Pentagon report said that enemy attacks in Kandahar rose 13 percent in the most recent October-March time period versus the same period a year earlier.

> Map of Afganistan
NATO must keep pummeling the Taliban. But it will also take a lot more effort to get the Afghans ready to continue this fight on their own. Right now they are dependent on NATO for planning, management, air support, intelligence and logistics. Thousands of officer slots are empty because of problems finding literate, qualified candidates.

The training program, led by an American three-star, needs to expand to prepare Afghans with specialized skills. It must find and train more officers. Afghans are gradually taking over the training duties for basic recruits. But talk of shortening the five-week course for trainers seems foolhardy. More work needs to be done to ensure that the forces are drawn from all ethnic groups.

There is little chance that France’s new president, François Hollande, will reverse his ill-considered pledge to pull out all French combat troops by the end of this year. But American officials are hoping to persuade him to commit significant numbers to the training program.

The alliance must also look beyond 2014. A new strategic partnership with Washington has sent an important message to the Afghans — and the region — that the United States is not abandoning them. Washington has promised to provide trainers and advisers after 2014 and to pay $2.3 billion of the projected $4.1 billion annual costs for Afghan security forces through 2024. Kabul’s share would be about $500 million. At the summit meeting, the allies — and Saudi Arabia and Qatar — need to agree to pick up the remaining $1.3 billion price tag for the Afghan forces.

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will be in Chicago. NATO leaders need to use the meeting to press him hard to finally rein in corruption and to start preparing for a fair presidential election in 2014.

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan will also be there. President Obama is close to persuading his government to reopen supply lines. Mr. Obama has yet to figure out how to get Pakistan’s military to cut ties to the extremists. Until that happens, even a competent Afghan force will have a hard time maintaining stability. The cost for Pakistan’s fragile democracy could be even higher.
The Ney York Times