NATO puts positive spin on its legacy in Afghanistan
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2014
NEWPORT, Wales — Like many servicemembers lately, Army 1st Lt. Josh Pitcher recently returned from what’s likely to be his last deployment to Afghanistan. However, Pitcher completed his tour with only one leg.
Since losing his leg in 2012 during his first deployment to Afghanistan, Pitcher has joined the small contingent of soldiers who have done what it takes to return to combat after losing a limb.
Now, Pitcher is one of the faces of NATO’s new interactive media campaign to define its legacy in Afghanistan.
When NATO leaders gathered in Wales for the last summit before the withdrawal of all combat troops at the end of this year, unfinished business in Afghanistan hung over the summit, even as new threats from Russia and Islamic extremists dominated the discussions.
Launched just days before the summit, a slick website called “Return to Hope” focuses on the individual feel-good stories that NATO officials find lacking in most media coverage. It was professionally produced by a Belgian company that also counts Coca-Cola, Godiva, and Nike as clients, but NATO officials refused to disclose how much money was spent on the effort.
The site features video interviews and written accounts from people, including Pitcher, who have been involved in Afghanistan since NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission began there more than a decade ago.
The website paints a picture of a coalition that deployed to Afghanistan as peacekeepers or humanitarian workers, but was then thrust into a conflict it wasn’t fully prepared for. As a representation of how NATO views its involvement in Afghanistan, the website highlights years of sacrifice that have led to a better Afghanistan.
“We’ve been guests of the Afghan people for a really long time now,” Pitcher told Stars and Stripes before an appearance at the NATO summit, three weeks after returning from his deployment. “It’s time for Afghanistan to be run by Afghans.”
Western officials are planning to keep about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan into next year, and at the summit, donor countries affirmed their commitment to spend more than $5 billion per year to fund the Afghanistan’s 350,000 security forces, $4.1 billion of which is supposed to come from the United States.
But the future of NATO involvement in Afghanistan is uncertain, as a leadership crisis resulting from a disputed presidential election has prevented the signing of agreements that would provide the legal framework for an extended military training mission.
Despite NATO leaders’ praise for the ISAF mission, the drawn-out and often bloody war in Afghanistan will likely have them thinking twice about wading into a another conflict without a clear endgame, said Afzal Ashraf, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Afghanistan is one of the worst example of mission creep there has ever been,” he said. “A lot of it goes back to a can-do attitude in the military, which wants to show it’s relevant. At some point, they’re going to need to learn to say ‘no’ to politicians. Military operations can provide time and space for a political solution, but it cannot provide the solution itself.”
Looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, it’s hard not to be pessimistic, said Ashraf, who, as an ISAF official in 2011 and 2012, advised the Afghan Interior Ministry on security issues. “Unless something desperate changes in the next few months, NATO’s legacy will be a whole load of weapons and people who know how to use them. Relatively little has been done to solve the underlying political crisis that caused the invasion in the first place.”
To be sure, NATO doesn’t shy away from acknowledging future uncertainty and some past mistakes like civilian casualties.
But the new website’s messages always finish on a note of hope: If mistakes were made, it contends, NATO has since learned and reformed.
That’s a message that was also presented by NATO leaders as they met on Thursday to discuss Afghanistan for the last time before coalition combat troops depart after 13 years.
“I believe we can be proud of what we have achieved there,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, in remarks before leaders entered a private meeting to discuss Afghanistan. “The terrorist threat has been substantially reduced. We have trained up the Afghan forces so they can provide security across the whole country.”
He said NATO countries remain dedicated to helping Afghanistan face future challenges.
“The best way to honor our fallen soldiers is by remaining vigilant, and ensuring that we enable the Afghan people to stop their country from once again becoming a haven for terrorists,” Cameron said.
NATO’s drawdown has coincided with the unresolved election that has left Afghanistan without a new president, leading to fears of civil violence. That hasn’t been lost on the Taliban, who have launched significant offensives in key provinces throughout the summer.
“The foreign occupiers considered free and fair elections to be their greatest achievement in Afghanistan,” the insurgent group said in a statement released online during the NATO summit. “Those elections that the foreigners considered the fruition of their 13 year old occupation, is now seen as a historical shame.”
But both Western and Afghan officials say they remain optimistic, as long as international support continues.
“The people of Afghanistan remain grateful for everything that NATO and the international community, with the U.S. in the lead, has done to help build the Afghan security forces, and we continue to look forward to that commitment for the long haul,” Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Muhammadi told Stripes during the summit.
Speaking to reporters on the final day of the summit, President Barack Obama honored the price paid by international troops in Afghanistan while highlighting the alliance’s plans to shift roles.
“We pay tribute to all those from our ISAF mission, including more than 2,200 Americans, who have given their lives for our security in Afghanistan,” he said. “NATO’s combat mission ends in three months and we are prepared to transition to a new mission focused on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces.”
He noted that the years of working together with both NATO allies and coalition partners like Georgia, have laid the ground work for continuing joint operations in the future.
“We’re launching a new effort with our closest partners, including many that have served with us in Afghanistan, to make sure our forces continue to operate together,” Obama said.
Even more than in Iraq, Afghanistan featured close cooperation between the allies, said Ashraf. “One of the things that Afghanistan did more than Iraq was to galvanize the coalition,” he said. “There was a much greater emphasis on combined operations.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghanistan was the fire that forged the alliance’s ability to conduct joint operations, a legacy that can now be applied as it faces threats in other areas.
“We have learned the hard way how to work together,” he said at a news conference on Friday. “We need to keep those skills as our largest operation in Afghanistan draws to a conclusion. So we will offer our partner countries more opportunities to work and train with us — so that we can remain effective when we deploy, and tackle security challenges together.”