Leaving Afghanistan: NATO Members Spar over Post-Withdrawal Financing

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NATO has promised it will provide significant financial support to Afghanistan over the next decade. Reaching agreement on who will pay how much is proving difficult, however. Aside from the US, all member states are doing their best to keep their share as small as possible.

NATO troops are preparing to head home from Afghanistan. Zoom
REUTERS

NATO troops are preparing to head home from Afghanistan.

Whenever Anders Fogh Rasmussen appears before the cameras after the regular meetings of the NATO alliance, it feels like everything is going well in the world. The alert NATO general secretary only ever seems to have good news to share. That also proved to be the case on Wednesday. After the so-called jumbo meeting of defense and foreign ministers, the host announced that Afghanistan's future had been saved yet again.

For the period following the planned troop withdrawals in 2014, the NATO chief said he had obtained "substantial pledges" from the member state ministers to provide financial support for the chaos-plagued country. Some countries, he said, had even offered concrete pledges. "I expect NATO members and (partner countries) to commit to pay a fair share of the sustainment costs," a pleased Rasmussen said.

Continued Support for Next Decade

The meeting had focused on a massive new NATO program addressing Afghanistan's post-ISAF future. After the almost total withdrawal of ISAF troops at the end of 2014, according to the strategy, NATO members don't want to leave the country entirely to its own fate. Instead, NATO wants to continue to support local security forces in Afghanistan for at least another 10 years, providing billions of dollars in aid and also providing expert consultants. The plan also calls for Afghanistan's security forces to be reduced from around 330,000 people today to around 230,000 soldiers and police to provide security for the country starting in 2016. The international community must step in because Afghanistan today remains a dysfunctional and poor state that cannot afford a security apparatus of that size.

But when it comes to divvying up these costs, there is nothing even close to the kind of unity NATO chief Rasmussen hinted at on Wednesday. Months ago, the United States dispatched diplomats to all NATO member countries to present the bill for the mission that would follow the long deployment in Afghanistan. According to the diplomats, support for Afghan security forces would cost, at a minimum, a whopping $4.1 billion per year.

The US emissaries also came with an offer from Washington stating the Americans would be prepared to assume half of the annual costs, with Afghanistan covering a further half-billion on its own in order to show that it is making progress in governance. The remaining NATO partners must come up with the remaining $1.8 billion.

Since then, the bargaining among NATO member states has resembled a bazaar, and has reflected the tough financial situation in a number of those countries. Diplomatic sources say that only a single country, tiny Luxembourg, made any concrete pledges in Brussels. The amount, like the country's contribution to the post-ISAF mission, is modest. Other countries limited themselves to statements of intent.

Germany Offers Vague Contribution

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière remained vague, saying their country would provide a "substantial contribution." They don't want to provide a concrete figure until after other countries have commented more clearly on their intentions. Their calculation is a simple one: From the point of view of diplomats, it wouldn't be prudent to commit too soon because they would then be unable to lower their pledge once other countries presented offers.

Britain was even less nuanced. Weeks ago, the financially strapped Brits signalled internally they would be prepared to make an annual contribution of $110 million, a figure that prompted collective headshaking and disbelief among other NATO member states. As the third-largest provider of troops in Afghanistan, one would have expected a bigger contribution from London. The figure is small even by the complicated measures NATO uses in allocating costs among members. Participants in Wednesday's round of talks said that the Americans were irritated by Britain's apparent stinginess and that both Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton are planning to travel to London for bilateral talks. But the British strategy may ultimately prove successful. They can, after all, claim to have made a concrete offer already, even if it is small. And in Brussels on Wednesday, the pledge from London was celebrated as a success.

As funding negotiations continue, however, other EU countries -- particularly those already struggling with outsized debt burdens -- could prove even more problematic. Germany's likely share of a few hundred million euros per year may seem symbolic compared to the billion euros it has already spent on maintaining its presence in Afghanistan. But Italy and Spain, both caught in the vice of the Continent's ongoing debt crisis, could find it extremely difficult to pledge funding for an extended period of 10 years.

Concerns over French Election

In the case of France, NATO is concerned that Paris could radically change course should President Nicolas Sarkozy lose his re-election bid. Socialist Party candidate François Hollande, who currently enjoys a lead in the polls ahead of the first round of voting scheduled for Sunday, has said that he wants to make significant changes to France's position on Afghanistan. It seems likely that Hollande would be less willing to pledge long-term support than would Sarkozy.

In Berlin, it is expected that the US will make use of its significant political leverage to increase the pressure on hesitant NATO member states. The US is eager to avoid a petty fight over money at the NATO summit, which Washington hopes will be a celebration of President Barack Obama's influence on the global stage ahead of fall presidential elections.

Further pressure is coming from Kabul. The behavior of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has led many to conclude that he sees a successful conclusion to the financing talks as a necessary prerequisite for signing a complicated strategic treaty with the US governing a further American military presence in Afghanistan. The pact would allow the US military to maintain strategically important air bases in the country. And Washington would like to see it signed either prior to or during the NATO summit.

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Graphic: The NATO operation in Afghanistan Zoom
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Graphic: The NATO operation in Afghanistan


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