WASHINGTON – For Masood Aziz, it is a time of opportunity and concern, both for him and his birth country.
The United States plans to give up much of the military control in Afghanistan by the end of this year to forces under NATO, the multinational, transatlantic alliance first formed to thwart Soviet expansion and control of Europe.
Aziz, 44, says the turnover of authority is a big concern. A NATO-led force may not be up to the task, nor may enough U.S. troops involved to make sure the nascent Afghan government can succeed. He said he fears military leaders might be making the same mistake the world made before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that launched the War on Terror: heading down the road toward ignoring Afghanistan at its own peril.
"This is the kind of thing that we cannot let happen," Aziz said.
Aziz, whose family moved to France before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and then to the United States in 1984, is a U.S. citizen and an international development consultant whose work focuses on Central and South Asia. He said he sees his war-torn homeland — a mountainous and rugged, but naturally rich country — as the future hub of prosperity between Europe, India, China and Pakistan, assuming the country can first be made a safe place.
"I think that the opportunities are great. Enormous. But the time window will be closing. ... We haven't had this sort of opportunity in the region, and not to take that, and make it real, would be a complete defeat for all of us. Not just the U.S., not just for Afghanistan, but for the whole region — everybody," Aziz said.
Afghanistan: Restless but Improved
Some analysts who have recently visited the country say Afghanistan is a mixed bag of encouraging signs and causes for concern.
Warren Marik, a former CIA case officer who worked in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, said he now regularly visits Afghanistan for pleasure. His most recent visit was from August to October.
"It's quiet," Marik said. "All the stuff you hear about" — including roadside bombings — "is happening out in the boonies."
Kabul, the capital, is a relatively safe and functioning city, Marik said.
"Merchants come out and say, 'Buy my rugs,' and little kids come out and say, 'I'm starving to death,' and I walk to my Chinese restaurant ... and they sit you down and they feed you the best you can, and, you know, life goes on," Marik said.
On the occasions when a bombing does occur, Marik said it's not ignored, but the locals seem to react to it the same way U.S. residents react to a fatal traffic accident: People die and it's reported in the local press, but it's largely forgotten about the next day.
The Taliban, he said, has been marginalized, and the most important thing for the United States is for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to remain in power.
"Nobody wants the Taliban back," Marik said.
But Christina Corbett, a London-based intelligence analyst who this year traveled to Afghanistan, said the Karzai government still needs to build its influence in the rest of the country.
"I think, sadly, the Karzai government is — still remains quite weak and ineffective outside of Kabul," Corbett said. As a result, some tribal warlords still have power in local districts, and to retain his power, Karzai needs their help to run the government.
"This is a reality that Karzai needs to use their support, to exert some influence in regions that really are still far from being under the control of the central government itself. And this, I think, is the nature of Afghanistan. It's a multi-factious country," Corbett said.
What Can NATO Do?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in the early years of the Cold War as an alliance to ward off the spread of communism and serve as protection against the Soviet Union. After the 1991 Soviet downfall, new nations formerly under communist rule joined NATO to counter common threats, including terrorism. Russia, while not a member, has a friendly military agreement with the group.
But the alliance still struggled to redefine itself. The humanitarian crises in the Balkans and Africa, and now the spreading threat of terrorism gave its members new reasons for cooperation.
In 2003, NATO got the job of giving a familiar name to the international coalition formed to restore Afghanistan's government after the ouster of the Taliban in October 2001.
The military command structure in Afghanistan now is split between the U.S. military and NATO, with increasing help from local Afghan forces as they receive training. In addition to the 26 alliance members, another 10 nations are aiding in the efforts.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's top military commander, said that as the alliance prepares to be the lead command structure for all of Afghanistan by the end of this year, he is confident it will be better than the current split.
In the new line-up, NATO will handle all security action except for counterterrorism missions. U.S. forces will continue to lead in that area.
Currently, 20,000 troops in Afghanistan are from the United States. The Defense Department late last year signaled a reduction in forces in Afghanistan by roughly 3,000 troops, which would bring the levels down to about 17,000.
In a Defense Department briefing last week, Jones avoided reporters' questions about specific future U.S. troop levels. He said he expected 21,000 troops to be under NATO command, including U.S. troops. But he did not say exactly how many would be U.S. troops, and how many, if any, U.S. troops would remain outside of NATO command.
"With regard to the final end state of what U.S. forces are, that'll be U.S. decision. The U.S. can decide to do what it wants. We have a minimum military requirement that I'm satisfied and has been met by all nations, and whatever is over and above that is up to the nations."
New Threats Put NATO Mission at Risk
In an interview Tuesday, Walter Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, who was also a senior adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority, told FOXNews.com that he believes a unified command under NATO is the way to go, although it's not going to be an overnight transition.
Slocombe said that while political differences divide its members, NATO is more nimble than the United Nations, in part because fewer countries are involved, in part because of fewer language barriers and in part because the military structures are more similar.
"It's clear that NATO has real problems in conducting an operation" in Afghanistan, Slocombe said, "but I think it is adapting."
That's a better assessment than he and a group of analysts gave in January after being sent to Afghanistan by NATO to observe on-the-ground efforts there. The group reported its findings during a January forum held in Washington, D.C., at the Brookings Institution.
The analysts, some of whom also had been to Iraq, noted that it appeared that national security was being tested more. Terrorist bombings have increased; the opium trade continues to be strong. They expressed mixed views over NATO's ability to handle the situation.
"The security situation is tough, and pretty clearly deteriorating. Although I say, that compared to Iraq, it is not nearly as bad as it is in Iraq," Slocombe said.
Steven Simon, who at the time of the Afghanistan visit was a RAND Corp. terrorism analyst but who has since moved to the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was concerned about NATO's ability to do what it needs to do: prevent terrorism.
Simon said evidence suggests terrorist elements are continuing to broaden their anti-Western horizons, and nothing seems to be ruling out that insurgents in Afghanistan might start taking their cues from counterparts in Iraq. He said the proposed drawdown of U.S. troops and what he said was NATO's unwillingness to be proactive could aid a greater insurgency.
After the forum, Simon told FOXNews.com that media reports don't reflect what he saw.
"I think the public perception of Afghanistan is that things are ticking over pretty nicely," Simon said. But "if the goal is to be winning the War on Terror, we really need to be doing more, because it's unrealistic to expect NATO to pick up the slack," Simon said.
In a follow-up e-mail, Simon said that U.S, Australian, British and others NATO contributors have good special-forces capabilities there, but "that won't choke off the Taliban terrorist threat."Leadership "Confident" in NATO Role
In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Jones acknowledged that while NATO continues to widen its scope, problems hinder the alliance.
Jones said only seven member nations are meeting the alliance's agreed-upon goal of spending 2 percent of an individual nation's gross domestic product on defense. For instance, the United States spent about 3.7 percent of its 2005 GDP — $472 billion — on the military, whereas Lithuania was expected to spend 1.3 percent of its 2005 GDP on defense, or roughly $323 million, according to NATO estimates.
After the hearing, Jones told FOXNews.com that he believed NATO is prepared to take control of Afghanistan even with its budgetary limits, but the alliance could be limited by money if it expands further.
"If the nations were to reverse course and, in fact, over a period of time plus-up their budgets, so much the better. I do think it's a problem., and I do think the trend line of taking on more political operations [such as NATO's mission in Afghanistan] — which I like, I mean, I think it's good — has to be accompanied by an equal political will to resource those operations," Jones said
"Otherwise, future commanders are going to get missions without capabilities, and that will be a problem," Jones said.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and convened the hearing in which Jones testified, told FOXNews.com that he was optimistic of NATO's ability to take military control in Afghanistan and said what he heard from Jones signified progress.
"It's a complex country as we all know, besides the military side. NATO can only do so much, but it's doing a great deal. And it's the first out-of-area situation, which all these countries have been forced to come to grips with — how do you have different nations with vastly different capabilities, some of them with no lift capacity [to move their forces over great distances] whatsoever, dealing in areas clearly outside the continent for which they felt responsibility in the past?" Lugar asked.
Despite the political and economic differences of the 26 member nations, Jones said the NATO forces are ready to take control in Afghanistan.
"I think that if there is a test, that the outcome is going to be swift and decisive. And then I think that you'll see that the terrorists or whoever it is that's doing it will take their business elsewhere," Jones said at last week's briefing. "I'm confident about the future."