The economic crisis raises the risk that European allies will pull back from Afghanistan at a time when US president-elect Barack Obama is expected to reach out to them for help, NATO’s supreme commander said on Friday.
At the same time, General Bantz Craddock predicted that US forces would be in Afghanistan for “at least” a decade, and likely have a presence there for decades to come.
His grim assessment comes as Obama prepares to shift the focus of US military operations to Afghanistan from Iraq to stem an insurgency that has rebounded over the past two years.
Craddock said that although European allies were expecting Obama to ask them to do more, “I think it’s going to be harder for them to do it because of decreasing defense budgets.”
He said NATO had plans for replacing Dutch forces in southern Afghanistan in 2010 and the Canadians in 2011.
“The unknown … is who else is going to pull out quickly. We don’t know that. It’s like in Iraq, when nations pulled out without telling anyone ahead time; it’s a terrible situation,” he told reporters.
The US has committed to sending an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, nearly doubling US force levels there from 32,000 troops currently.
But the pace of the US buildup has been slowed by continuing military requirements in Iraq, where there are still more than 140,000 troops and where commanders insist that conditions remain fragile.
In Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has about 50,000 troops, which includes 14,000 US troops.
Craddock said it would be another three years before the shortfall in security requirements there could be filled by the Afghan army, and so more foreign forces would be needed to provide security.
“We have to be able to implement our strategy: one, clear out the insurgency; two, hold; three, build,” he said.
However, he said that after clearing, “we don’t have enough to hold to allow the build.”
Asked whether Afghanistan would require a 10-year US military commitment, he said, “At least.”
“Maybe not at current force levels but I think we’ll see a presence there for decades,” he said.
The greatest security challenge is in southern Afghanistan, where ISAF faces a “very coherent Pashtun insurgency” fueled by the trade in drugs from Afghan poppies, Craddock said.
He said the UN estimated that insurgents were now getting US$200 million to US$500 million a year from the drug trade, a big jump from the previous UN estimate of US$60 million to US$100 million a year.
“The uptick in IEDs, the uptick in suicide bombs, the new numbers we’re seeing would tell me it has to be paid for,” he said, adding that he believed insurgent financing from drugs had at least doubled over the past year to 18 months.
Craddock has pushed for, and obtained, authority for ISAF to attack drug labs as a way of combating the insurgency.
“The question I’m asked all the time is, ‘are you losing?’” he said. “No. We’re not winning fast enough.”
He said European allies have not questioned the requirement for more forces in Afghanistan, but are constrained by declining defense budgets, and that is likely to get worse in current financial climate.
Currently, only six of 36 NATO members meet the alliance’s minimum goal of dedicating 2 percent of GDP to security, he said.
Of those, half have declining defense budgets, he said.
“Absent this financial crisis, still we’re challenged. With this financial crisis, we’re challenged ever more greatly,” he said.
Besides troop contributions to NATO operations, tight budgets are also undercutting efforts to modernize NATO forces and acquire helicopters, drones and other systems needed in Afghanistan, he said.
“So I think we are going to have some hard times ahead. It’s going to impact, one, the ability of nations to stay in operations, which is probably the most expensive. Two, it may slow down their transformation,” he said.
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