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Afghanistan's transformational challenge

Diego A. Ruiz Palmer examines the impact of NATO's engagement in Afghanistan on the Alliance's wider transformation

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 on 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 War history.

ISAF impact

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 Command Structure. 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 high-readiness 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 Eurocorps (ISAF 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 NATO 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.

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. ISAF, 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 Kabul.

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 moves ahead.

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 and complementary.

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.

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