BRUSSELS— The top NATO military commander says, with all the challenges still facing Afghanistan, he is only “cautiously optimistic” that the Afghan government and security forces will be able to maintain security and prevent the country from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists after most foreign forces withdraw at the end of next year. U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis spoke about the situation in an interview.
It’s been nearly four years since Stavridis took over at U.S. European Command, and a few days later as commander of NATO operations worldwide.
Since then, he has made numerous visits to Afghanistan to provide strategic guidance to troops and commanders from dozens of countries, and to monitor progress.
But four years later - and after more than 11 years of Western military involvement, thousands of casualties and billions of dollars spent - he can muster only ‘cautious’ optimism that in the end the Afghanistan effort will succeed.
“I think we've gone, over the four years that I've been in command, that I can speak to personally, from a period of time in which I had doubts about our ability to succeed to today, [when] I think we will succeed. And I remain cautiously optimistic that we will,” said Stavridis.
That optimism is based in large part on what the admiral sees as significant improvements in the Afghan security forces, which showed him some of what they can do during a visit two years ago.
More broadly, he said Afghanistan’s civilian society also is changing for the better.
Meanwhile, Taliban attacks continue in several parts of the country. But the admiral said that when foreign troops, except for trainers and counter-terrorism experts, leave at the end of next year, the Taliban’s ability to convince Afghans to help them will be severely reduced.
“The Taliban narrative throughout this period, throughout this decade, has been 'we're fighting the foreigners.' And that was their rallying call. Well, guess what. At the end of 2014 they're not fighting the foreigners, they're fighting Afghans - their own brothers, and by the way their sisters, in the Afghan armed forces. So their narrative breaks at the end of 2014,” he said.
It could still all go wrong, but Afghanistan researcher Matthew Willis, at London’s Royal United Services Institute, has a view similar to the admiral’s.
“I think they will hold it together. A lot of people are concerned that, following 2014, Afghanistan will revert to a 1990s sort of situation, which ultimately was civil war. But there is no reason that history should repeat itself,” said Willis.
After years of war and dashed hopes, however, no one is expressing confidence, only hope and caution.
And as he prepares to retire after 37 years in the U.S. Navy, Admiral Stavridis shares one lesson he has learned, partly from the Afghanistan war.
“In the end, in this 21st century, we won't deliver security from the barrel of a gun. We won't deliver security from the barrel of a gun,” he said.
The admiral said security and freedom will be gained through international cooperation and a communications strategy to explain and promote democratic values, with only sparing use of the military to which he devoted his career.