19 January 2019

The future of the 2019 Romanian Special Operations Forces Mission in Afghanistan amid US Troop Withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax

At least until the first NATO-led force generation conference associated with NATO-led Resolute Support Mission planning in Afghanistan, scheduled for the first half of 2019, the Romanian (ROU) Special operations forces (SOF) will keep their current ”boots on the ground” in Afghanistan theater of operations (TO), in accordance with the provisions of the ”Plan of use of the Romanian Armed Forces to be sent to missions and operations abroad in 2019”.

Between 15-16 January 2019, the NATO Military Committee, NATO's highest military authority, met at Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) level at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium to discuss, among other things, the future of the Resolute Support Mission and the regional security situation, as a consequence of a possible US troop reductions in Afghanistan, as well. This event will probably outline the future of the International Coalition's armed forces missions deployed to this TO, including those of SOF.

I have read in the last few weeks a multitude of opinions, some contradictory, about the impact of the recent and somewhat surprising decisions of US President Donald Trump on the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, over the security situation in the two countries wrecked by endless internal confrontations on the missions of international coalitions in these two TOs, on the efforts of the global fight against terrorism and, implicitly, on the security situation at regional and global levels.

In a recent tweet, (January 8 2019), wishing to reiterate its determination to implement previously announced decisions, the US president wrote: ”Endless Wars, especially those which are fought out of judgement mistakes that were made many years ago, & those where we are getting little financial or military help from the rich countries that so greatly benefit from what we are doing, will eventually come to a glorious end!”. And in another two (January 14 2019): ”Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone … Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey. Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria - natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!”

It is known that the US currently has about 2,000 deployed military personnel to conduct missions tin Syria (wherefrom they have only begun to withdraw some equipment, but not troops, yet), and somewhere around 14,000 soldiers performing train, assist, advise and counter terrorism (CT) missions in TO Afghanistan, including SOF.

Since Romania has no troops deployed in Syria, I will only try to make some predictions about the implications of a potential US boots on the ground reduction on the future of the ROU SOF mission in TO Afghanistan.

Above all, any US military withdrawal from the theater of operations, in my opinion, will only be ”conditions based”. This is not a new thing, so it was during former President Barack Obama, who had made his decision in 2014 to withdraw US troops by the end of 2016, with the transition from the ISAF mission to the Resolute Support Mission (RSM).

Even President Trump's last tweet on Syria's withdrawal has somewhat confirmed the need for certain conditions to be complete and was in line with what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his visit to the capital city of Egypt in Cairo, on January 10 2019: ”We will labour tirelessly, us alongside you, to defeat ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other jihadists that threaten our security and yours. President Trump made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria. We always do and now is the time. But this isn’t a change of mission. We remain committed to the complete dismantling of ISIS, the ISIS threat, and the ongoing fight against radical islamism in all its forms. Together.”

For ROU SOF deployed to Afghanistan will be a situation somewhat similar to 2014. Like then, it will not be about a "zero option" nor a total withdrawal plan for US troops. At least, not for the year 2019 and even less for the SOF. The US boots on the ground reduction in Afghanistan will primarily target conventional troops, I guess. There is currently no final deadline or a roadmap.

Indeed, depending on the pace of the action and the number of conventional troops to be repatriated, there will be a negative impact on the extent of the areas of responsibility and the number of forward operating bases that can still be operated (all in the sense of their shrinkage), on the combat service support capabilities (fire support, quick reaction force - QRF, force protection - FP etc.), on the combat service support activities (supply, transport, maintenance, campaign services, medical evacuation etc.) that will eventually influence the measure of performance, but also of the effectiveness of the train, advise and assist mission, as well as those of countering terrorism mission.

Forward operating bases that no longer can be operated will close and will eventually be handed over to afghans, train, advise, assist missions will consolidate around Kabul and Bagram hubs and more likely in areas were insurgent and terrorist networks are still active and pose a real threat (eg. East and North Afghanistan) and other SOF missions (CT) will probably be conducted in areas of responsibility/ operations were efficient “golden hour” MEDEVAC, QRF, and CAS could be provided, in a timely manner.   

Remember that the US strategy to use political, military and social pressure to force the Taliban to return to the peace talks does not extend to ISIS-K[i], a terrorist organization operating in the Province of Jowzan in Northern Afghanistan and in the Eastern Provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. And as the US Central Command Commander, General Votel, claimed last year, "Our mission is to destroy this organization."

I am sure that American and RSM planners have been conducting a detailed planning process, analyzing the new mission needs, operational requirements, alternatives and courses of action to be able to recommend to decision makers the most appropriate solutions (including contingency plans) to reconfigure the train, advice and assist mission, as well as the CT mission, unilaterally conducted by the United States.

At the end of this process, there will be some gaps and needs for capabilities that will eventually be completed during the next force generation conferences[ii], through national contributions (other than the US) based on their interests and own strategic objectives,  given the already assumed commitments made to support the coalition’s common effort in Afghanistan.

And it is important to remember that in December 2018, the Foreign Ministers of the 41 nations contributing to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan while meeting in Brussels made an official Statement affirming that: "A stable, peaceful and secure Afghanistan that is safe from the threat of terrorism is in the shared interest of the Alliance and the entire region.” They recognised also that: "that the future military role of the international community in Afghanistan will be among the issues to be discussed in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.” Acknowledging that the success will require continued financial and logistical support, NATO allies and operational partners remain firmly committed to sustaining and supporting the capabilities of Afghan forces to eliminate the threat of terrorism in all its forms to ensure the security of Afghan citizens and stability in the region. 

Among the nations that will be invited to consider the opportunity to modify their own contribution to fill in the gaps in capabilities needed to complete the new reconfigured mission, there will also be Romania that will have to make a difficult choice between Afghanistan, domestic responsibilities as well as other missions contributions.

The new mission needs and operational requirements (in terms of SOF capabilities) resulted during the mission planning process in Afghanistan, for the period of 2019 - 2020, will be consolidated into a NATO standardised format and then inserted into the so-called Combined Joint Statement of Requirements (CJSOR), in fact, a spreadsheet that includes every military capability needed for the effort undertaken by the international coalition, in our case, within the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

We do not know what final decision will be made by Romania regarding ROU SOF deployed to Afghanistan in 2019, but we are tracking that our own combat support and combat service support capabilities available in the theater of operations are limited, and the whole component undergoes a complex modernization process that depletes significant resources. It is certain that NATO requirements will need to be analyzed, and at  the force generation conferences (usually held twice a year, one at the beginning of the summer and the other at the end of the autumn) were partners discuss the previous mentioned CJSOR, the Romanian representative will have to make the official offer.

Since 2006, Romania has been participating in the Stabilization and Reconstruction efforts of Afghanistan, with their SOF conducting train, advise and assist missions of the Afghan National Defense and Security Special Forces, specifically the Police Special Forces. And these Afghan SOF, like commandos[iii], which are in the process of doubling the number of their units, will still need training, advise and assistance in their operationalization process, which ROU SOF could provide with professionalism.

According to NATO[iv], at the 2018 Brussels summit, the Allies and Partners agreed to extend their commitment to supporting the financial support of Afghan security forces by 2024, in addition to the train, advise and assist mission. In addition, The NATO Military Committee, NATO's highest military authority, met at the Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) meeting at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, 15 - 16 January 2019 to discuss, among other things, the future of RSM and the regional security situation, as a consequence of a possible US troop reductions in Afghanistan, as well.

And even if US President Trump continues to be frustrated with the endless Afghan conflict and criticize his generals about the performance of US military in Afghanistan, saying: "I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They did not do such a great job in Afghanistan.”, the facts mentioned above in the article make me urge to believe that, at least for SOF, the missions will continue at the same level, including counter-terrorism mission. Let's not forget that, for example, ISIS-K remains a powerful terrorist force that still has the capacity to perform deadly terrorist attacks in Kabul and other cities, and will need, in some way or another, to be disrupted and dismantled. And again, any support, in any form, provided to this end to the Afghan National Defense and Security Special Forces and more broadly to the joint efforts of the international coalition, is welcome.

Moreover, during the meeting of the National Supreme Defense Council held in December 2018, Romania approved its ”Plan of use of the Romanian Armed Forces to be sent to missions and operations abroad in 2019”. A number of 1,902 troops from the Romanian Armed Forces will participate in these missions and operations in 2019, increasing by 127 soldiers compared to 2018. And it appears that the main effort continues to remain the contribution to the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan - the Resolute Support Mission. Amongst them we can find the ROU SOF, as well.

All in all, at least until the first NATO-led force generation conference to be held this year, ROU SOF will keep their current boots on the ground in accordance with the previsions of the ”Plan of use of the Romanian Armed Forces to be sent to missions and operations abroad in 2019”. At the last 2019 NATO Military Committee meeting the Allies and Partners reiterated their previous commitments to the RSM. However, we will keep an eye on the future developments related to the RSM and their implications on ROU SOF missions deployed to TO Afghanistan.

As a reminder, RSM is a NATO-led non-combat mission involving approximately 16,000 troops and civilians from 41 countries (NATO and partner countries), planned and executed to help institutions and Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (responsible since January 2015 to ensure Afghanistan's security) in the sustainable development of the security and  defense of their own citizens capabilities. The mission is to train, advise, assist, finance Afghan security and defense institutions and forces, and develop a NATO-Afghanistan strategic partnership with the Afghan Government.

[i] https://monitorulapararii.ro/analiza-schimbarea-comenzii-misiunii-nato-resolute-support-din-afganistan-implicatii-pentru-fortele-pentru-operatii-speciale-din-armata-romaniei-1-5737

[ii] The force generation process in the Afghanistan effort is well described in the book written by David P. Auerswald, Stephen M. Saideman ”NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone”, published in 2014 by Princeton University Press

[iii] https://monitorulapararii.ro/previziuni-politice-si-de-securitate-2019-xiv-afganistan-1-9027

[iv] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_113694.htm