NATO leaders mark troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

The military bloc leaves behind a fractured nation

NEWPORT, United Kingdom – NATO leaders are set to discuss what in many ways feels like yesterday’s war.

With eastern Ukraine burning and Islamic extremists rampaging across Syria and northern Iraq, western military allies will turn their attention Thursday to the final withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, slated for the end of the year.

The summit of NATO leaders gets underway in Newport, a pastoral seaside community about 22 kilometres outside of Cardiff, Wales.

The very first item on the agenda is the over decade-long war and nation-building exercise that despite costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars seems far from over in Afghanistan.

Originally, the session on Afghanistan had the makings of a perfunctory celebration to mark the end of over a decade of involvement in the beleaguered nation and to chart a course for the future.

But that was before last spring’s Afghan presidential election turned into a bitter stand-off that threatens to plunge the country back into civil war.

“There will be unrest in the country,” said Nipa Banerjee, Canada’s former head of development in Afghanistan. “The audit process needs a reform and talks should continue in the interest of Afghan civilians.”

A U.S.-brokered deal that would have seen presidential contenders Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, share power was on shaky ground this week.

Banerjee, who was in Kabul during the spring election and subsequent run-off vote, said the recount process to weed out fraudulent votes has been ill-defined and murky.

“The necessary measures for transparency were never taken,” said Banerjee, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa.

The election — billed as the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan’s history — was supposed to be a crowning achievement for NATO, the event it had been fighting for since committing to expand President Hamid Karzai’s writ beyond Kabul.

Karzai, who remains as president for the moment, has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which was expected to pave the way to keep a residual force in the country.

While NATO has helped train a large security force, including troops and police, the Afghans lack critical support systems, such as helicopters, surveillance drones and close air support.

Banerjee said she is worried the alliance will not follow through on its pledge — made at the last summit in Chicago — to properly fund those security forces.

Cash-strapped western nations, facing new missions in the Middle East and eastern Europe, will be hard-pressed to raise the minimum $4.1-billion required to pay and equip the Afghans, she said.

Afghanistan’s defence minister will attend the NATO meeting, not Karzai.

The Afghan president, whose relationship with the west has grown distant and bitter, was in Kandahar this week to dedicate a mosque originally started by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The building sat half completed for over a decade until Karzai’s government recently poured US $5 million into its completion.