New operational horizon: Small-unit multinational
formations are deployed over vast expanses of land in
Afghanistan far from their support bases (© SHAPE)
Few aspects of NATO's evolution in recent years better illustrate the link between the Alliance's expanding operational roles and its political and military transformation than NATO's engagement in Afghanistan. Indeed, the fact that NATO is leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) so far away from the Alliance's traditional European centre of gravity is indicative of how far and how rapidly NATO's agenda has evolved in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001.
NATO's leadership of ISAF has paved the way for important changes and improvements in the way the Alliance employs its command and force structures, as well as how it plans, conducts and supports expeditionary operations in remote and austere theatres. However, the impact of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan on the Alliance's transformation predates NATO's assumption of the ISAF command in August 2003. It extends back to the Alliance's immediate response to 9/11, as well as to the spring and summer of 2002, when the key political and military decisions that would propel the Alliance's operations beyond the Euro Atlantic area were made.
The implications for NATO of 9/11 were both immediate and enduring. Within a day of the tragic events in Washington and New York, the North Atlantic Council invoked Article 5, the collective defence clause of the Washington Treaty, for the first time in its history. And within weeks of the terrorist attacks, NATO launched both Operation Eagle Assist and Operation Active Endeavour deploying Alliance Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to the United States and deterring terrorist activity in the Mediterranean respectively. Several Allies also committed forces on an individual basis to the US led Operation Enduring Freedom to remove the Taliban regime and oust al Qaida from Afghanistan. The experience of deploying land, air and maritime forces for extended periods at a considerable distance from their home bases has contributed to enhancing Allied expeditionary capabilities, both operationally and logistically. It has also had an indirect, but genuinely beneficial impact on Allies' ability to sustain ISAF operations in Afghanistan, underscoring synergies between the two operations, which are not always readily apparent.
The more fundamental transformational impact of 9/11 has been the review of the
political and military paradigms underpinning NATO's post Cold War strategy that
led the Alliance to agree to conduct military operations without geographic limitations.
At their May 2002 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, NATO foreign ministers decided
that: "To carry out the full range of its missions, NATO must be able to field
forces that can move quickly to wherever they are needed, sustain operations
over distance and time, and achieve their objectives." Soon after, the Allies
agreed that NATO, with its unrivalled experience and expertise in the planning
and conduct of multinational operations, could provide planning support to non-NATO
coalition operations involving the participation of individual Allies, on a case-by-case
basis. This decision paved the way for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe
(SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, to assist for the first time a non-NATO
operation with coordination of troop contributions, the generation of forces
and the provision of intelligence and communications and information systems.
The impact of these unprecedented steps was almost immediate. As soon as Germany
and the Netherlands declared their readiness to assume command of ISAF from Turkey
in February 2003, they turned to NATO with a request that SHAPE provide planning
support to ISAF III as a UN mandated, non-NATO operation. NATO agreed to this
request in October 2002 and SHAPE hosted an ISAF force-generation conference
in November 2002, the first such conference for a non-NATO operation. When Canada
indicated that it was prepared to provide the bulk of the forces of ISAF IV from
August 2003, but that it did not have a suitable national headquarters to form
the core of the ISAF headquarters, it also turned to NATO and, together with
Germany and the Netherlands, invited the Alliance to take command of ISAF. The
Allies agreed for NATO to take on this role in April 2003.
In this way, within a year of agreeing that NATO forces should be prepared to
operate beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, the Alliance had decided, first, to support
ISAF as a non-NATO operation involving Allies and several Partner nations and,
second, to take command of ISAF itself. By bringing the decades-long debate
NATO's "out-of-area" role to an end, the Alliance's engagement in Afghanistan,
through ISAF, has been one of the most important milestones in NATO's post-Cold
Beyond the decision to take command of ISAF, NATO's engagement in Afghanistan has also had a lasting impact on the employment of the Alliance's new command and force structures, the generation of forces and the planning, conduct and sustainability of multinational operations in a distant theatre.
With regard to command and control arrangements, ISAF has been NATO's first operation
which has tested, from the start, the concept of a three-tiered – strategic,
operational and in-theatre – headquarters embedded in the Alliance's new
Accordingly, ISAF's Kabul headquarters reports to SHAPE, as ISAF's strategic
headquarters, through Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Brunssum, in the Netherlands,
which is the operational-level headquarters. This arrangement allows the Supreme
Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) to provide strategic guidance to ISAF without
getting involved in operational-level management, which is left to the Joint
Force Command. ISAF is JFC Brunssum's first "real world" operation and, therefore,
a pivotal milestone in its development as an operational-level headquarters.
ISAF has also been an opportunity to refine the so-called "reach-back" concept.
This concept enables a number of planning functions to be executed more effectively
and efficiently, on behalf of ISAF, at SHAPE and at the Joint Force Command headquarters.
This has been achieved by relying on the large planning capabilities that exist
in Mons and Brunssum and by limiting the number of headquarters personnel that
has to be deployed to Afghanistan, with commensurate reductions in manpower,
transportation and support costs.
In addition, ISAF is the first NATO-led operation for which the Graduated-Readiness
Force (GRF) land headquarters, a key element of the Alliance's new Force Structure,
are providing the core of the in-theatre headquarters on a rotational basis.
Once all GRFs are operational, there will be seven high-readiness and three
lower-readiness corps level multinational land headquarters, as well as five
multinational maritime headquarters. Following ISAF IV and V, where the core
of ISAF headquarters was provided in succession by two headquarters of NATO's
Command Structure – Joint Command Centre, headquartered in Heidelberg,
Germany, and JFC Brunssum – GRFs have taken on that role. Following the
VI from August 2004 to February 2005), the Turkish-led NATO Rapid Deployable
Corps took command of the ISAF VII rotation in February and the Italian-led
Rapid Deployable Corps will assume command of ISAF in August.
While clearly there are some disadvantages associated with the deployment to
and redeployment from Afghanistan of a corps-size headquarters every six months,
including the disruption that such rotation brings to mission continuity and
the substantial training and transportation costs involved, there are also important
advantages. Firstly, the commitment of various multinational formations composed
of staff personnel and forces from different member nations helps ensure that
all Allies are involved in ISAF with "boots on the ground", thereby spreading
the burden. This helps overcome a major weakness of ISAF prior to NATO assuming
command of it, where the burden associated with its leadership fell primarily
on the lead nation.
| ISAF has been described
as the Alliance's new operational horizon
Secondly, because the GRF corps committed to ISAF
also provide the land component command of the NRF,
the ISAF and NRF missions combine to have a transformational
impact on these formations.
On the one hand, the NRF mission helps ensure that
the GRF corps deploying to ISAF meet the highest
operational readiness and effectiveness standards.
On the other hand, the ISAF mission contributes concretely
to the enhancement of GRF deployability to distant
theatres and, hence, to the deployability
of the NRF as a whole. From a transformational perspective,
therefore, ISAF and the NRF are complementary. Moreover,
in this important endeavour,
NATO's two strategic commands – Allied Command for
Operations and Allied Command for Transformation
– have both played important roles. Allied
Command Operations has developed the operational
template for ISAF and the NRF. Allied Command Transformation
has provided the supporting
mission rehearsal training to ISAF and NRF staffs.
Diego A. Ruiz Palmer is head of the Planning Section
in NATO's Operations Division.
ISAF has also brought other transformational "firsts".
The Implementation Force and Stabilisation Force
in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Kosovo Force
in Kosovo all began as large-scale operations
involving forces numbering in the tens of thousands.
by contrast, was launched with fewer than 5,000
personnel and has been steadily increasing as the
mission's area of responsibility has grown beyond
Given Afghanistan's remoteness by comparison with the
Balkans, the gradual increase in ISAF's size has posed
particular and unprecedented logistical challenges.
In this way, because of the almost exclusive reliance
on airlift to rotate and supply forces in Afghanistan,
NATO has developed considerably its strategic transportation
planning skills, which, in turn, will have a beneficial
impact on the NRF's own expeditionary planning. Moreover,
ISAF's development of Provincial Reconstruction Teams
(PRTs) to provide security assistance outside Kabul
has been a catalyst for adapting NATO's operational
planning. Through the PRT concept, the Alliance is
now catering for the conduct of tactical operations
by small-unit multinational formations, deployed over
vast expanses of land in an austere environment, far
from their support bases. These conditions have also
provided a real-world opportunity to investigate the
application of NATO's Network-Enabled Capability concept,
which aims at leveraging the Alliance's various operational
capabilities through a network-centric approach.
Overcoming operational shortfalls
ISAF has, of course, also exposed well-publicised
shortfalls in the availability and usability of Alliance
forces, notably key operational enablers such as transport
helicopters, for expeditionary operations, as well
as shortcomings in NATO's force generation processes.
Although these limitations are not unique to ISAF,
they have assumed greater salience in this instance,
both because of the high political profile of NATO's
engagement in Afghanistan and the particular logistical
and budgetary challenges associated with deploying
Alliance forces to so distant a theatre. In response,
NATO has launched a number of initiatives.
Firstly, NATO has revised its force-generation procedures
to ensure a more satisfactory match between the requirements
of individual operations and the availability of forces.
The Alliance is doing this by expanding the scope of
the force-generation process to include all NATO operations,
as well as extending its time horizon. It has also
made its operational planning, consultation and decision-making
processes more responsive to the requirements associated
with the timely initiation and effective
execution of new and demanding operations. Secondly,
the Alliance has focused its capability and force-planning
mechanisms, in the context of the Prague Capabilities
Commitment of 2002, on enhancing the usability and
deployability of forces through agreement on both quantitative
and qualitative targets. Lastly, the Alliance has launched
a review of the eligibility of operations for expanded
common funding among all Allies.
While these remedies will not produce instant solutions,
they have already had a salutary impact on the Alliance's
ability to resource ISAF properly, as the mission expands
beyond Kabul and northern Afghanistan to the western
and southern parts of the country. In this way, the
force-generation process to fill the requirements
associated with mission expansion to the western provinces
of Afghanistan was completed relatively smoothly, with
major contributions offered by Italy, Lithuania, Spain
and the United States. And a longer lasting impact
is expected as the transformation of Alliance forces
It has frequently been said that transformation is
a process, not an end-state. Just as often, ISAF has
been described as the Alliance's new operational horizon.
However, the full scope of the relationship between
NATO's political and military transformation and the
Alliance's engagement in Afghanistan has not always
been apparent. Nevertheless, the mutual influence and
salutary effect between the two since 2002 is unmistakable
and growing. This, in turn, contributes to making European
and North American forces more capable, compatible
The political priority of ISAF and the requirements of this militarily challenging operation have put the pivotal decisions taken at NATO's 2002 Prague Summit to the test, while giving the Alliance's political and military transformation a new impetus. As NATO expands its strategic outlook to the broader Middle East through its Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, as ISAF extends its footprint across an ever larger area of Afghanistan, and as the NRF moves towards its full operational capability, the symbiotic relationship in NATO's future between operations and transformation will become ever clearer. In this perspective, the Alliance's operational engagement in Afghanistan has been truly a transformational event.