The outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, Reto Stocker, delivered a sober warning about that war-torn nation’s future, in particular that civilians in Afghanistan—who’ve been suffering for three decades—face a bleak future.

Stocker’s important warning, which contrasts sharply with the Pollyannish views of Secretary of Defense Panetta and the head of the UN in Afghanistan, was issued as he left the country after seven years in Kabul:

I am filled with concern as I leave this country. Since I arrived here in 2005, local armed groups have proliferated, civilians have been caught between not just one but multiple front lines, and it has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Afghans to obtain health care. People are not just suffering the effects of the armed conflict. Hardship arising from the economic situation, or from severe weather or natural disaster, has become more widespread, and hope for the future has been steadily declining.

In a video interview, Stocker said that the war, once expected to be quick and decisive, has devolved into a protracted conflict, “and the end is not in sight.” Unlike the UN, which is often seen in Afghanistan as part of the occupation and not as a neutral force, the ICRC is truly nonpartisan. Unlike the foreign forces and others, who travel in heavily armored vehicles, the ICRC crisscrosses the county in what Stocker calls “flimsy,” vulnerable transport. Unlike the UN and the United States, the ICRC maintains credibility with all sides, including the Taliban. And, as Stocker says in the rare interview, he has frequently raised the issue of civilian casualties with the U.S. and NATO. He says:

For the civilian population, is not just Party A against Party B, but really just a whole conundrum of different forces out there, of which you often do not know, what do they want? What is the safest way for a civilian to interact with them in order not to have any problems?… Thirty years of conflict is more than anybody can bear.

Meanwhile, as Panetta spewed happy talk at a NATO meeting, the International Crisis Group issued a devastating report forecasting the possible collapse of Afghanistan in 2014, when US forces depart. From its executive summary (and you can read the whole thirty-four-page report, too):

Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. That makes the political challenge of organizing a credible presidential election and transfer of power from President Karzai to a successor that year all the more daunting. A repeat of previous elections’ chaos and chicanery would trigger a constitutional crisis, lessening chances the present political dispensation can survive the transition. In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim. …

Institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade. As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital.

Panetta, meanwhile, says that Afghanistan has turned the corner, according to AP:

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the NATO coalition has turned an important corner in Afghanistan, and has come too far and spilled too much blood to let insider attacks or anything else undermine the mission there.

But he urged NATO, in private, to step up military training to get the pathetic Afghan security forces up to speed by 2014. Not surprisingly, NATO is resisting:

Panetta also used his time during the closed session of the NATO conference here Wednesday to urge the other defense ministers to help fill the shortfall of military training teams in Afghanistan. The teams, he said, are critical to building the capabilities of the Afghan forces so they can take control of their country’s security by the end of 2014.

Panetta asked that NATO allies provide the roughly sixty teams that are needed—which would bring the total to 465—and give those commitments by later next month. It has been a persistent plea from the U.S. for the last three years, as NATO worked to increase the Afghan security forces to about 352,000.

But Panetta wouldn’t be deterred from his happy-talk message, telling reporters:

Whatever tactics the enemy throws at ushellip;we will not allow those tactics to divide us from our Afghan partners, and we will not allow those tactics to divert us from the mission we are dedicated to. We’ve come too far, we’ve fought too many battles, we have spilled too much blood not to finish the job.

Be sure to check out more of Robert Dreyfuss’s NATO coverage.