NATO Prepares To Leave Afghanistan, And No U.S. Security Deal Yet

A look back and a look ahead as NATO prepares for the final year of its mission in Afghanistan. This year saw several major events as Afghan forces took responsibility for security and the U.S. and Afghanistan came close, but have so far failed to ink a security deal to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends next year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Christmas for U.S. diplomats in Kabul got off to a rocky start. Two rockets landed inside the U.S. embassy compound just before dawn. There were no injuries and no damage, but it is a reminder that Afghanistan is still far from a stable, peaceful country. It's been a year of major change there as the U.S. handed over security to Afghan forces.

And here to discuss the last year in Afghanistan and what lies ahead is NPR's Sean Carberry, who joins us from Kabul. Welcome once again, Sean.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And as I just mentioned, NATO handed over security to the Afghan army and police at the beginning of the summer. Has it been seen as a relatively smooth transition?

CARBERRY: It has. And arguably, it exceeded many expectations. The level of violence was similar to previous years, so the Taliban weren't holding anything back. The Afghan forces did lose record numbers of troops, but they held. The question is, though, they had a lot of help from NATO in terms of air support, logistics and intelligence that they won't have next year.

SIEGEL: Now, this past year, despite much negotiation, there's still no bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan that would keep some U.S. forces there after 2014 to train Afghans and to conduct some counterterrorism operations. What are the expectations for an agreement of that sort? And what happens if there isn't one?

CARBERRY: Well, President Karzai still refuses to sign, saying that unless the U.S. immediately stops all military raids on Afghan homes and takes concrete steps to begin a peace process, he's not going to sign the deal. If there is no deal, the U.S. military will pull all its troops out by the end of next year and the NATO training mission set for 2015 will also be canceled. It's not the outcome that U.S. forces, nor a lot of Afghans, want to see.

SIEGEL: Sean, there is a presidential election next April. For the first time in Afghanistan's history, there's actually a chance of a democratic transition of power. What are the expectations for the 2014 vote?

CARBERRY: Well, one thing that's important to note is that there were concerns all this year about whether the country would pass an effective elections law and get things in place for the vote. They did at the last minute. The international community is more or less satisfied with the process for the vote and they say things are on track for the April 5th election. The question now is whether enough people will be able to vote in enough parts of the country, mainly because of security concerns. And then, will the Afghans feel the results are legitimate? If it does go well, it certainly removes a major crisis point, but it hardly guarantees a smooth future for the country.

SIEGEL: You spent the last couple of days, I know, traveling around with U.S. Army Major General James McConville, commander of the eastern region. What's his assessment of how Afghan forces are likely to do next year?

CARBERRY: Well, he's pretty upbeat. He was delivering a message to troops the last couple of days, saying that he felt the Afghan forces did a good job last year. He acknowledges they didn't score a decisive victory and the Taliban will keep fighting. But he does say that Afghan forces will be better even though they do have a lot of work to do.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES MCCONVILLE: They know how to fight. They've been fighting for a long time. But upper level logistics they're going to need to work on, they're going to continue and improve their indirect fire capabilities, their counter-IED capabilities, and their intelligence and operations capabilities.

SIEGEL: That's General McConville. Sean, you've got a pretty full plate there, watching how the Afghan security forces do and the election. Anything else you're watching in Kabul next year?

CARBERRY: Yes. Actually, I'm going to keep an eye on the economy because the drawdown is reducing income to the country. There's a lot of uncertainty about the future and that's freezing investment. Some businesses are moving money out of the country. And in a poor country with a lot of weapons and insurgents, an economic crisis could certainly derail things.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sean Carberry reporting from Kabul. Sean, merry Christmas and thank you.

CARBERRY: Thanks. Merry Christmas to you.

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