While the Alliance is taking the fight to the Taliban, a downrange visit by James Snyder reveals the progress being made behind the front lines.
Getting outside the wire: ISAF's soldiers work tirelessly to protect Afghanistan's democracy and assist its people in working towards their future (© ISAF )
Five years after the September 11 attacks and the overthrow of the Taliban by Afghan and Coalition forces, NATO is on the front lines in Afghanistan. Its mission has rapidly expanded in scope and ambition. As of October 2006, NATO is carrying out its UN-mandated mission throughout the whole of Afghanistan. With more than 30 000 deployed soldiers, over 35 nations are committed to supporting the democratic Afghan government, providing security for the country, and facilitating reconstruction in a country laid low by 30 years of war. With the Summit in Riga, Latvia, approaching us, I accompanied a group of Alliance opinion leaders visiting Afghanistan with the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. James L. Jones, to learn more about the stakes involved in NATO's most important endeavour to date.
Overall, the major trends in Afghanistan are good. The economy is growing. Roads, clinics and schools are being built. More Afghan children are attending classes than ever before, and basic health care has been extended to 80 per cent of the population. But challenges remain. Transportation and communication remain enormously difficult. Illiteracy is high and critical skills are scarce. Only two per cent of Afghans have regular electricity. This has consequences for the health of Afghans. In October, Kabul's weather is pleasant and cool, but as the sun goes down the temperature drops and a million city residents burn wood for heat, filling the air with smoke. Stars vanish. By dawn, the city lies under a soft pall of soot, the mountains hidden.
Security remains a serious concern as ISAF has expanded its mission. This summer, in NATO's first extended combat in its history, a combined force of Dutch, British, American, Canadian, Afghan and Danish soldiers resoundingly defeated Taliban insurgents in Kandahar province. Combatant commanders told us this was a critical defeat because it demonstrated NATO's military prowess and commitment to the Afghans we wish to protect.
But the forward fight against the Taliban is only part of ISAF's complex mission. NATO is committed to helping the Afghan government provide its own security and to helping rebuild the country. To this end, ISAF is organised across the country into Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), an innovation that joins military units with civilian experts to identify and coordinate reconstruction projects within a secure environment.
We flew in a Canadian C-130 transport aircraft from Kabul to a joint Dutch-Australian PRT in Tirin Kot, Uruzgan province, about an hour's flight southwest of Kabul. The small PRT is a Spartan, remote and arid facility dominated by the surrounding mountains. We landed on the PRT's short dirt airstrip. After unloading us, our plane quickly turned around and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
A talk with ISAF officers on the ground revealed the subtlety of PRT work. It is not ISAF's job to build roads, dig wells, and erect clinics and schools directly. Instead, ISAF PRTs work with local communities and organisations to prioritise and enable projects that Afghans can implement themselves.
For example, a British officer I spoke to described how his PRT helped rebuild a local irrigation network. As dry as Afghanistan looks, water is abundant. The country only lacks the means to move the water from rivers to fields or towns. (In fact, Afghanistan had one of the most sophisticated irrigations systems in the world before the 1979 Soviet invasion.) Working with provincial Afghan authorities, the PRT identified irrigation as a top priority. ISAF military engineers drew up a plan for rebuilding a canal network. Then the PRT found funding through the central government, donor organisations, and the aid community to finance the project.
Based on the Sandhurst military academy, the Kabul Military Training Centre trains thousands of soldiers each year. We watched a squad of students training with rifles equipped with lasers instead of bullets
With funding secure, the PRT contracted with local Afghans to begin building the canals and then monitored progress and quality. Soon the district will have a steady water supply to support agriculture - a real success the Taliban cannot claim and a blow to narcotics traffickers who depend on poor water resources in remote areas to exploit farmers who can grow nothing other than opium poppies in such an environment.
There is no one PRT model applied blindly across the country. Instead, PRTs are developed on a loose model and then adapted to local conditions. By way of contrast, we flew by CH-47 helicopter from Kabul to Bagram to visit another PRT. Bagram lies northeast of the capital, and we flew between high ridges and over quilted, cultivated land astride small streams running through the countryside. Bagram itself is an old Soviet-era airfield now configured to support NATO and coalition operations across the country. It also hosts its own PRT, recently placed under NATO command and run jointly by the United States and South Korea.
ISAF officers and soldiers understand the necessity of getting "outside the wire" and take great pride in working with local Afghans. They see clear potential for development. A representative of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has several officers in Afghanistan, told us that Afghanistan once grew quality produce as fine as anything grown anywhere in the world. Now, for a variety of reasons, that same land lies idle and unproductive. To turn that around, USDA experts are using the PRT to teach provincial officials about agriculture development, spurring policies and projects to make the land productive again. This core capacity-building will help Afghanistan develop and stand on its own. Development will suppress narcotics and help Afghan invest in their future - a real threat to the Taliban.
The threat from the Taliban and other forces for instability in Afghanistan was never far from mind during our visit. In Bagram, an American airman and soldier described a patrol during which they were ambushed twice. They fought their way out and completed their mission. The day we landed, 14 Afghans were killed by a roadside bomb in the south of the country. Five wounded Afghans were evacuated to the Greek-run ISAF military hospital at Kabul International Airport that we later visited. And on our return flight, General Jones reported an extended fire fight by Dutch soldiers with Taliban militants outside Tirin Kot, one day after we had visited the PRT in Uruzgan.
The most important condition for progress in Afghanistan is security, which makes NATO's mission paramount. All things necessary for Afghanistan to prosper - from reconstruction, development and education to economic growth, foreign trade and investment - depend on a safe and secure environment. And critical to Afghanistan's stability is the development of Afghan security forces.
We drove to Kabul's outskirts to visit the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC), the main facility forming the new Afghan National Army (ANA). The KMTC is not a ISAF-run facility, but NATO Member militaries from France, Great Britain and the United States support the training there.
The drive out put Kabul's growth on display - taxis, cars and trucks rattled down the road, small businesses were open, and stands overflowed with fresh fruit and vegetables. Construction equipment spread out along the highway, ready for building projects. The road still needed work, and there was no comparing the outskirts to a Western suburb, but it was clear Afghans were out and active in their community.
Based roughly on the Sandhurst British military academy, the KMTC trains thousands of soldiers each year. We watched a squad of students training with rifles equipped with lasers instead of bullets, using a computer to check their accuracy and improve their technique. The ANA is already 30 000 strong and virtually every ISAF operation against the Taliban involves ANA participation. Afghan soldiers are capable and brave fighters, ISAF officers told us, but lack some basic equipment like armour, vehicles and heavy weapons. With further investment, the ANA will be able to take responsibility for the security of the country.
It is no doubt dangerous work in Afghanistan. But the firm commitment by NATO and the international community to the country's security and development is the bulwark against the Taliban and other threats. The Afghan people give the Taliban no political quarter. But an adversary willing to use violence and terror does not need politics to subdue and intimidate innocent people.
The collapse of Afghanistan in the 1990s created a terrorist haven that directly threatened our own security as demonstrated by al Qaida's campaign of violence that culminated on September 11, 2001. NATO will not allow Afghanistan to fall again into chaos and violence. The international community is committed to ensuring a better tomorrow for the Afghan people - and our own.