By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Oct. 9, 2012 – When NATO defense ministers meet here tomorrow with representatives of six non-NATO nations that contribute to the International Security and Assistance Force, the topic will be Afghanistan’s successes, its challenges and its future.
Representing the United States, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta joined defense leaders from most of NATO’s 28 member nations during two days of meetings held to assess the organization’s missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and its defense capabilities.
A senior Defense Department official, speaking on background, said one sign of success in Afghanistan is an impressive level of commitment by the Afghan partners as the mission transitions toward full Afghan security lead in 2014.
The Afghan government is committed to the war’s objective, “which is to ensure that Afghanistan is never again a place that extremist al-Qaida can use to take action against us or our allies,” he said.
It’s also important to NATO, the official said, that “this is an alliance that finishes what it starts.” The 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan has “come a long way together and the success we’ve been building for is now within sight,” he said.
Defense ministers officially recognized that hard-won progress during the NATO Summit in Chicago in July, he said.
As the summer fighting season draws to a close in Afghanistan, “we’ve seen the Afghan forces step up as never before,” he said, in a sign that NATO’s training efforts are paying off.
But the official noted that recent media attention has focused on challenges, particularly insider threats, in which Afghan troops turn on their coalition partners, taking about 50 lives so far this year.
An important benefit of the NATO meeting, he said, will be to help people understand “the very serious efforts that are being made to try and address the insider-threat challenges.”
Efforts by the Taliban to characterize insider attacks “as some kind of a strategic card has not worked in Afghanistan and the proof is in the performance of the Afghan security forces,” the official added, “so it is important to have this discussion at a high level. I can’t predict what’s going to come out of it.”
The second big challenge is the continuing safe haven that the Taliban have in Pakistan where they rest, regroup, refit, rearm and refinance, the official said. Many Taliban fighters return there after the fighting season, he said, and top-level insurgents stay there all year.
“I’m not saying that this is [sponsored by the Pakistani government] and I’m not blaming the government or the people of Pakistan for this,” the official explained.
Several areas in Pakistan lack full government control, he added, “and it’s important for the government of Pakistan to continue to take steps to bring those areas under control.”
The Pakistani government faces serious challenges, he said. “What’s important to do is to find ways for both NATO and Afghanistan to work with Pakistan and help them meet those challenges,” he added.
The precarious relationship between the United States and Pakistan ruptured Nov. 26, 2011 when a cross-border attack by NATO forces at a border coordination center in Afghanistan’s Kunar province killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
“As our relationship has recovered with Pakistan over the past couple of months, we’ve seen an increase in border cooperation at the ISAF level but also increased border cooperation at the Afghan and Pakistani military level,” the defense official said.
That hasn’t solved continuing problems of cross-border shelling and infiltration, he said, but the Pakistani military is increasingly recognizing “that an unstable Afghanistan is a greater threat to Pakistan than they have [understood].
“If that is the case,” he said, “and we’re seeing increased signs of that, then the incentive for the Pakistanis to work with the Afghan military, with ISAF, to try and reduce these cross-border incidents … could increase.”
The official added, “It’s something we’re seeing just the beginnings of, but we’ve heard it from fairly high levels in Pakistan … so now we need some good, careful work by the militaries on both sides, political leaders on both sides, to see if we can realize concrete actions that reflect the evolution in Pakistani strategic thinking.”