While the foreign military presence in Afghanistan continues to decline, the number of civilian casualties is on the rise. By the end of 2014, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will take full responsibility for security across the country when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission comes to an end. A much reduced foreign military presence will remain in Afghanistan post-2014 and despite warnings anticipating increased threat levels from 2015–2017, the existing force of 352,000 ANSF personnel are expected to be reduced to 228,500 by the end of 2017—as agreed at the 2012 Chicago Summit.
Until recently, the legal conditions under which foreign military forces are to remain in Afghanistan have been a sticking point. The previous Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghanistan was due to expire at the end of 2014 and while the terms of the new BSA had already been negotiated with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and approved by the Loya Jirga in November 2013, the signing process stalled in the lead-up to the 2014 Presidential election. Prior to leaving office, President Karzai remarked on 23 September that he ‘would have signed the BSA if America had cooperated in the peace process’ but ‘America pursued its own interests and did not want peace in Afghanistan’. Karzai also commented on Afghanistan’s difficult relationship with Pakistan saying they ‘always wanted two things from Afghanistan to which we never agreed: the recognition of the Durand Line and control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy’.
Although the initial Presidential election was held on 5 April 2014, with the contested run-off election held in June, the Afghan Unity Government was not formed until 29 September. Within one day of government, the long-awaited new Bilateral Security Agreement was signed on 30 September 2014. The scope of the BSA includes the laws that apply to US military and civilian personnel deployed to Afghanistan, arrangements for developing and sustaining Afghan defence capabilities and cooperation, and the locations of agreed facilities and areas for US military use. The BSA enters into force on 1 January 2015 and remains ‘in force until the end of 2024 and beyond’ unless one of the parties decides to terminate the agreement.
Also on 30 September 2014, the Afghan Unity Government signed a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO, which provides the legal framework for NATO and partner nations, including Australia, to advise, assist and train the ANSF once ISAF transitions to the NATO Resolute Support Mission in January 2015. NATO’s Resolute Support Mission will involve approximately 12,000 personnel mainly operating from Kabul/Bagram bases as well as four other locations: Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.
ISAF transferred lead security responsibility to the ANSF in June 2013, which led to the drawdown of combat operations by ISAF contributing nations. Since December 2013, ISAF personnel numbers have more than halved: from a total of 86,834 (including over 1,000 Australians) to 41,124 by 3 September 2014 (ISAF lists Australian personnel numbers at 273, but the Department of Defence website shows a current authorised strength of 400).
Since the war began in 2001, Coalition military fatalities had reached 3,476 (as of 7 October 2014), of which 41 were Australian. To date, 2014 has recorded the lowest number of military fatalities since 2005, with 66 deaths. In stark contrast, the United Nations reported the rate of civilian fatalities for the first half of 2014 had risen by 24 per cent to 4,853 deaths. For a number of years, the main cause of civilian deaths in Afghanistan was improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Ground combat between anti-government elements and the ANSF has now surpassed IEDs as the leading cause of civilian deaths. The United Nations warned that the ‘nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is changing in 2014 with an escalation of ground engagements in civilian-populated areas … The impact on civilians, including the most vulnerable Afghans, is proving to be devastating’.
Of the 12,000 Coalition military personnel to remain in Afghanistan from 2015, the majority (9,800) are expected to be US personnel. However, President Obama stated that by the end of 2015, the number of US military personnel will be halved and near the end of 2016 US forces will ‘draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq’. Australia is yet to announce the size, nature and length of our military commitment in Afghanistan from 2015 but has pledged to provide US$300 million over the next three years towards sustaining the ANSF.
Despite ISAF Commander General John F. Campbell’s positive assertions that the ANSF is capable of winning terrain from the Taliban and holding it, he also pointed out that ‘there’s going to be some challenges as we move forward, working through the national unity government’. Afghanistan’s transition into a new unity government, so far, appears to be positive with strong government backing of its national forces and international community support. However, should civilian fatalities continue to rise, the new unity government could face the additional challenge of maintaining popular support.