GENEVA NATO will be ending its official role after 13 years in occupation of Afghanistan on 31 December, 2014. Nearly 10,000 US troops, mainly special forces, but also several thousand Australian, British and other NATO forces are expected to remain in a primarily training capacity for another two or three years. Last week, President Obama suggested that American forces would still be allowed to engage in a combat support capacity, if need be.
By the end of 2016, however, most, if not all, foreign troops would be out, at least that’s the official line. It is almost certain the Washington will retain special forces units at Bagram, Kandahar and other Afghan airbases as part of its bilateral agreement with the new Kabul government. These may be used for special operations inside Afghanistan, but also, more crucially, across the border in Pakistan.
So where does this leave Afghanistan? Militarily, the western intervention has proved a failure given that the Taliban and other insurgent groups have not been vanquished. If anything, they are stepping up their attacks against the government and foreigners – military and aid workers alike. While certain progress has been made since the end of 2001, notably nearly eight million children are now at school and there is better access to healthcare for ordinary Afghans, the international community has largely failed to deal effectively with Afghanistan’s recovery. As both the United States and the European Union have discovered, trying to conduct nation-building from the outside was a squandered illusion.
As illustrated by last week’s Canton of Geneva presentation of its International Solidarity Programme in support of two non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan, International Assistance Mission and the Nai Qala Association, much of the responsibility must now lie with humanitarian and development agencies on the ground. “Billions of dollars have been wasted since the international community came in,” noted Alessandro Monsutti, a migration specialist with the Graduate Institute of Geneva. “People need to get back to effective recovery if there is to be end to this war.”
But peace negotiations remain imperative, particularly if Kabul manages to hold its own against the insurgents once foreign troops have gone. With neither side capable of victory, this will only mean more protracted war.
For some observers, this is where Switzerland now needs to play a role. The country has been involved with Afghanistan since before fighting broke out in July, 1978, primarily with agricultural projects. Given that peace talks in Doha have stalled, new initiatives are in the offing with Switzerland taking a “quiet lead,” as one EU diplomat put it. According to one Afghan foreign ministry source: “Switzerland is really the only country that both the Afghan government and the Taliban respect. We remember the ICRC and the talks held in Geneva during the Soviet war. This is what needs to happen again.”