Bonded in Blood: The U.S.-Afghan Relationship

Wardak meets with Gates, February 2011

Afghanistan’s senior national security leaders were in Washington, D.C. last week for bilateral meetings. At the Pentagon on February 23, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates welcomed Afghanistan’s ministers of defense and interior for the first of what officials expect to be regular meetings to sustain a long-term military-to-military relationship. The message is consistent with what international leaders had agreed during NATO’s Lisbon summit last fall– Afghanistan will assume the security lead by 2014, but NATO will maintain an enduring commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014.  

The long-term commitment is consistent with U.S. international goals, where enduring security relationships have become a salient feature of modern U.S. foreign policy. Today, the United States has security agreements for basing, mutual defense, and technology transfer with almost every country in the world. Some relationships, like those with South Korea and Germany, are decades old, mature, and governed by formal treaties. Others, like those with Yemen and Uzbekistan, are relatively new, informal, and resemble typical donor-recipient relationships. But these non-traditional partners are indicative of how U.S. national security policy has changed over the past several decades. Instead of supporting allies against threatening expansionism or gaining access to “strategic locations,” filling security deficits now drives security decisions to form bilateral partnerships. However, some relationships are more special than others.  

When it comes to Afghanistan, it appears a special relationship is emerging. While rocky over the last ten years, Secretary Gates signaled this week that the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship “is bonded in the blood of our sons and daughters.” Gates’ Afghan counterpart, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, said, “I strongly believe that our greatest tribute to [coalition forces who were killed or wounded in Afghanistan] will be to realize the objectives of those brave soldiers who paid the ultimate price.” That is to build an enduring and self-sustaining Afghan National Security Force which supports a fully-functioning Afghan government.

The Gates-Wardak exchange is indicative of how the U.S.-Afghan relationship is changing and developing into a partnership. There are about 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, but they work with a 270,000-strong Afghan National Security Force which is growing to 305,000 by October 2011. Taken together, the combined force is the real Afghan surge. Coalition and Afghan forces fight in Dari shohna ba shohna – in Pashtu ooga-pa-ooga– and in English shoulder-to-shoulder. NATO forces are partnered with Afghan units at many levels. Those Afghan forces lead more and more operations every day and suffer casualties too (last year Afghan security personnel were killed at a rate one and half times greater than coalition forces). 

To be sure, there are concerns within U.S. national security circles that the relationship is not sustainable—Afghanistan is now the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance. Notwithstanding those concerns, there is recognition that transition from NATO to Afghanistan by 2014 is not possible without a capable Afghan force to assume security responsibility.  

Leading the effort to train and equip the Afghan security forces is the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan or NTM-A. Before the creation of NTM-A in November 2009 there were insufficient resources to properly train and equip the Afghan security forces. In November 2009, there were just two countries providing 30 trainers. Today, there are 32 countries providing 1,300 trainers. While there is still a short fall in the number of trainers, countries increasingly recognize that training Afghanistan’s police and military is essential to long-term stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia. That stability provides the foundation for preventing the use of Afghanistan by extremists or narco-traffickers in the future. 

Senator Carl Levin recognized this, "For years, I have strongly and repeatedly advocated for building up Afghan military capability because I believe only the Afghans can truly secure their nation’s future," Levin said in a statement. "I have never needed any convincing on this point. Quite the opposite, my efforts have been aimed at convincing others of the need for larger, more capable Afghan security forces." When this happens, the United States and its coalition partners will be on a path to fulfilling President Obama’s goal “that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate.”

Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is assigned to NTM-A; his latest book is Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military. He is currently on leave from the Naval War College. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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