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A firm foundation

General David Richards reflects on his time as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

A warm welcome: General Richards meeting local merchants in Kabul (© ISAF )

It has been a great privilege and honour to command the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps during the ninth mission of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (HQ ISAF IX). NATO demonstrated itself to be a formidable fighting force in 2006, capable of both high-tempo conventional operations and the security provision that economic and political development requires. I pay tribute to the extraordinary courage of the men and women who have repeatedly put themselves at risk for the benefit of the people of Afghanistan.

The past year has also proved to be a year of transition. The Alliance's role in the country has expanded while the nature of the conflict has changed. We have taken important steps towards establishing and maintaining stability. More remains to be done. Nonetheless, NATO has made and will continue to make a significant difference in the region through the efforts of the soldiers, sailors and airmen from all countries who are serving there. Below, I have outlined both ISAF's major accomplishments in 2006 and some of the challenges that remain.

Signed and delivered

During its tenure, HQ ISAF IX was charged with, and delivered, geographic expansion of the NATO mission. ISAF expanded into areas where previously there had been few or no international forces, extending the writ of the Afghan government in the process. In August and September 2006, as troops pushed out into districts that had been little patrolled before, it became clear that the Taliban had prepared a defensive position that was designed to threaten Kandahar and Highway 1, the main road between Kabul and Herat in the West. Their intent was to take Kandahar, which would have damaged President Karzai's government irreparably. This challenge to the government and ISAF's credibility could not go uncontested.

To counter it, ISAF launched NATO's first brigade-size operation to defeat them (Operation MEDUSA). The result was significant. The Taliban suffered a comprehensive tactical defeat, despite reinforcing their position. NATO, which had proved its ability to fight and win an intense battle, gained psychological ascendancy in the minds of the people. By 5 October 2006, NATO's area of responsibility had been extended to cover the whole country.

The primary benefit of this expansion has been to unify the military command within the country, a development that has enabled pan-theatre operations to take place in support of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). It has also allowed a more coherent relationship between ISAF, the Afghan Ministry of Defence and the Afghan National Army. The Afghan government and the international community have welcomed the resultant single point of contact; relationships between ISAF commanders and members of the government have been strengthened.

The Taliban subsequently changed their tactics, and reverted to a style of insurgency that relied more on suicide bombs and 'asymmetric' attacks; they have not held ground defensively since. ISAF has also been quick to learn. Operations are now integrated more closely with the government, tribal elders and local leaders. A significant emphasis on immediate reconstruction and development, combined with the removal of senior insurgent leaders reinforced by a strong information operation, have left local insurgents susceptible to reconciliation and surrender.

There has been, moreover, a consistent decline in insurgent activity since the summer in the eastern and southern regions. In the remainder of the country, security has remained stable with a comparatively low level of incidents. There is now a window of opportunity, created largely by ISAF and ANSF, which has allowed ISAF, the Afghan government and the international community to pay greater attention to governance and development. The Afghan Development Zones - where governance, reconstruction and development are properly synchronised in areas secured by ISAF and ANSF - have flourished as a result.

While we are welcomed by the people, we should also recognise that time is of the essence

Among other measures, the Policy Action Group (PAG) was established to provide a mechanism for focusing government and international community efforts on key areas of the insurgency. Recently its focus has been expanded, as it is seen as an effective tool for spreading the writ of the government into all areas. For example, after the PAG met in Kandahar, ministers started to travel outside Kabul on a more frequent basis.

Expansion into the south and east has also meant that ISAF has had to concentrate on strengthening relations between the Pakistani military, ISAF and the Afghan National Army through the Tripartite Commission. Significant developments have included the introduction of both the Operational Coordination Group, a joint planning group intended to guide the Commission's work, and the Joint Intelligence and Operations Centre in HQ ISAF staffed by Afghan Army, Pakistan military and ISAF officers. This Centre enables daily operational planning and intelligence sharing by officers from all three armies.

There is still much to be done. Here are some specific areas where I believe we need to focus.

A full-spectrum approach

First, we should recognise the breadth of the counter-insurgency campaign. While the expansion delivered unity of effort on security, the international community lacks such a focus. On key issues there is no single international approach to the Afghan government, creating an incoherence that weakens the international community's influence. A single political leader capable of corralling views is one solution for filling this void.

Our force levels in 2006 were just sufficient to contain the insurgency. Significant capability gaps remain that restricted my ability to reinforce where the situation dictated. As a result of too few forces, we have found it difficult to maintain security where we have gained it, and we are using the ANSF more than is ideal for its development and growth. And while the recent announcement that a US Brigade will remain in theatre for four more months is very welcome, this is not a long-term solution. Given the nature of the insurgency we are now fighting, we should look again at force requirements and adjust as necessary.

As the complexity of operations develops, we need to adapt our preparation and training. All our soldiers need to be able to handle complex and sophisticated situations with a cultural sensitivity that allows close interaction with the Afghan people. For example, all soldiers must understand when and how to escalate the use of force and how to operate within the Rules of Engagement of the theatre. If we cause collateral damage through not understanding these issues, we risk losing the consent of the people. We should ensure that all nations have a common understanding of the nature of the ISAF operation and prepare and equip their soldiers accordingly.

While NATO should adopt a long-term approach to the campaign, our foreign troops on Afghan soil should not assume we will be tolerated indefinitely. While we are welcomed by the people, we should also recognise that time is of the essence. If we do not use our current window of opportunity, we will potentially provide our opposition with a rallying call through labelling us as 'occupiers'. We need to put an Afghan face on operations, placing Afghans in the lead on security. The development of the ANSF is key to enabling this and NATO should take a more active role. Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams need to be fully resourced and partnering arrangements improved.

Governance, especially anti-corruption measures, and development need to show continued progress soon. My assessment is that we need to have shown visible improvement in all areas if we are to maintain the people's consent.

In addition, while ISAF is mandated to support reconstruction and development, we are poorly resourced to do so despite some successes. Because of the gap between our operations and support from the international community, we are unable to follow up operations swiftly with aid. The introduction of the Post-Operational Humanitarian Relief Fund (POHRF) is a step forward, but it currently lacks the resources to have sufficient effect. Provincial Reconstruction Teams should have sufficient capacity and resources to deliver projects within high-risk environments. NATO should introduce an equivalent to the US Commander's Emergency Relief Programme (CERP) fund to provide the necessary capacity, and in the interim adequately resource the POHRF.

Looking ahead

Constructive engagement with all elements of the Afghan government was and remains essential to advance the mission. The breadth of the campaign at the operational level has required the engagement of the Headquarters with senior military and political leaders. A Key Leader Engagement plan was devised to ensure that meetings were focused and that my intent was properly articulated. Similarly, despite a cool political environment between Pakistan and Afghanistan, our engagement with the Pakistani military through the Tripartite Commission was and remains essential for building confidence across the border. Campaign success will not be achieved without close cooperation with Pakistan.

Engagement with tribal elders and traditional structures has also gained in significance. Through the use of Shuras - Islamic consultative councils - we have begun to separate the ideologically motivated and irreconcilable Taliban from reconcilables who we are able to draw back into the government fold. By empowering the tribal structures, for example, in Northern Helmand, we are able to break apart the insurgency. This involves compromise and a willingness to deal with 'grey' rather than 'black and white'. But it must also be conducted through existing structures, to reinforce the writ of the government.

Since the summer, we have combined development, humanitarian aid, governance and security into a single coherent operation. The integration of all available effects, supported by a successful information operation, is key to success. This requires preparation through "shaping operations" that are designed to drive a wedge between the insurgents and the population while subsequently leaving the insurgents vulnerable to more traditional military operations. These operations place a premium on using highly focused combat power. A high degree of training and discipline is required from those involved.

Finally, Information Operations are at the heart of the campaign; winning and keeping the hearts and minds of the people is central to success. This requires a coherent approach from all forces engaged in the insurgency, from the Government of Afghanistan to the national capitals of Troop Contributing Nations and other international audiences. This also requires a strategy designed at the highest levels that provides a coherent Information Operation framework from top to bottom. To have the desired effect among its multiple audiences - including, most importantly, the Afghans themselves - this message requires proper resourcing from HQ down to Region and Task Force. Currently, this is not always the case.

Building on firm foundations, we have handed over plans to our successor Headquarters to pre-empt attempts by the insurgents to raise the tempo of their operations as the weather improves. There will be some tough fighting in 2007, but we seek through ISAF's spring operations to retain the initiative well into the second quarter of 2007 and then on into the rest of the year.

Read more: Afghanistan, ISAF, Riga
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