U.S. had some success in curbing restrictions, but point is mostly moot now
In January 2013, President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed in a White House meeting to accelerate the winding down of the 11-year-old war. This further reduced the importance of an Obama promise from the 2008 campaign promise -- to curb restrictions by NATO nations on where and when their military personnel could operate in Afghanistan. Still, we"ll put Obama's promise to the Obameter.
First, some background. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is tasked with preventing Afghanistan "from once again becoming a haven for terrorists, to help provide security, and to contribute to a better future for the Afghan people.”
Six months after Obama took office, NATO forces in Afghanistan numbered 64,495. As a result of the "surge” supported by Obama, the number of allied troops more than doubled by June 2011, to 132,457. Since then, the number has fallen to 102,011. (Over the same period, the size of the U.S. contingent -- the largest of any nation -- rose from 29,950 to 90,000 before falling to 68,000 by December 2012.)
During this period, approximately 50 nations have contributed forces, ranging from core NATO members such as the United Kingdom (9,500 troops by December 2012), Germany (4,318) and Italy (4,000) to Azerbaijan (94), Singapore (39), Tonga (55), El Salvador (12).
At the time Obama made his promise, U.S. officials were irked by some of the conditions that some of the participating nations placed on their troops' activities. For example, Germany insisted that its troops couldn't leave camps after dark, their Medevacs couldn't be used to ferry Afghan soldiers, and their troops could only be used in the more peaceful northern part of the country, said Jens Ringsmose, an associate professor in political science at the University of Southern Denmark who has written extensively about NATO policy.
"NATO faced this issue from day one,” and "the debate rolled into the Obama presidency,” said Sten Rynning, a political scientist at the University of Southern Denmark who has also written widely about NATO.
We checked with several experts on NATO policy and found a consensus that the Obama administration made some progress in lessening the restrictions on participating troops.
"Informally, all nations in Afghanistan have some kind of caveats attached to the way their troops operate,” Ringsmose said. "Formally, about a third of the troop-contributing countries haven't used caveats. Still, when Obama came into office, the new administration managed to make a number of European countries give up on some of their caveats – but far from all.”
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, added that Obama and the U.S. allies engaged in a bit of give-and-take.
"The U.S. did add forces in Afghanistan, and that elicited greater NATO contributions from a few countries — not an overwhelming change in allied effort, but a noteworthy one nonetheless,” O'Hanlon said.
Rynning noted that the U.S. placed some conditions of its own. "The Marines that moved into Helmand Province came with a handful of caveats of their own -- caveats that impacted on the British and the whole regional command and also (then-Commander Gen. Stanley) McChrystal's own command of the campaign.”
Ultimately, though, the experts agreed that the question is either moot already, or soon will be.
"It was a reasonable promise to make at the time, but has been overtaken by events,” said Mark Webber of the University of Birmingham in England. "Restrictions on fighting no longer make much sense, as the ISAF combat force is due to withdraw over the next 24 months. Canadian, French and Dutch combat troops have already gone.”
We rate this promise a Compromise.
NATO, "International Security Assistance Force (ISAF): Key Facts and Figures," accessed Jan 14, 2013
The Guardian, "Afghanistan troop numbers data: how many does each country send to the Nato mission there?" June 22, 2011
Associated Press, "Obama, Karzai agree: It's time to wind down war," Jan 10, 2013
Email interview with Mark V. Vlasic, senior fellow with the Georgetown University Institute for Law, Science & Global Security and principal at Madison Law & Strategy Group PLLC, Jan. 10, 2013
Email interview with Sten Rynning, political scientist at the University of Southern Denmark, Jan. 13, 2013
Email interview with Jens Ringsmose, political scientist at the University of Southern Denmark, Jan. 13, 2013
Email interview with Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Jan. 10, 2013
Email interview with Mark Webber, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, Jan. 11, 2013
Obama meets with NATO Secretary-General
President Barack Obama met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the White House to discuss Afghanistan and other matters on Sept. 29, 2009.
Obama called Afghanistan "the most important NATO mission right now" in brief public remarks after the private meeting.
"This is not a American battle; this is a NATO mission, as well," Obama said. "And we are working actively and diligently to consult with NATO at every step of the way. And I'm very grateful for the leadership that Secretary General Rasmussen has shown in committing NATO to a full partnership in this process."
Rasmussen also talked about NATO's role in Afghanistan, calling it a joint operation. "It is and it will remain a team effort," Rasmussen said. "I agree with President Obama in his approach: strategy first, then resources. The first thing is not numbers. It is to find and fine-tune the right approach to implement the strategy already laid down."
Ending restrictions on NATO forces will no doubt require careful diplomacy. The meeting with Rasmussen seemed positive enough to move this promise to In the Works.
White House Web site, Remarks by President Obama and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen , Sept. 29, 2009