ISAF's mission in Afghanistan (2001-2014)

  • Last updated: 30 May. 2022 09:04

NATO took the lead of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan on 11 August 2003. Mandated by the United Nations, ISAF’s primary objective was to enable the Afghan government to provide effective security across the country and develop new Afghan security forces to ensure Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists. From 2011, responsibility for security was gradually transitioned to Afghan forces, which took the lead for security operations across the country by summer 2013. The transition process was completed and Afghan forces assumed full security responsibility at the end of 2014, when the ISAF mission was completed. A new, smaller non-combat mission (“Resolute Support”) was launched on 1 January 2015 to provide further training, advice and assistance to the Afghan security forces and institutions.

ISAF was one of the largest coalitions in history and is NATO’s most challenging mission to date. At its height, the force was more than 130,000 strong, with troops from 51 NATO and partner nations.

Originally deployed to provide security in and around the capital Kabul, ISAF’s presence was gradually expanded to cover the whole country by the second half of 2006.  As ISAF expanded into the east and south, its troops became increasingly engaged in fighting a growing insurgency in 2007 and 2008, while trying to help Afghanistan rebuild. In 2009, a new counter-insurgency was launched and 40,000 extra troops were deployed.

In support of the Afghan government, ISAF assisted the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the conduct of security operations throughout the country, helping to reduce the capability of the insurgency.

An important priority for ISAF was to increase the capacity and capabilities of the Afghan forces. This became the main focus of the mission from 2011 onwards, as responsibility for security was progressively transitioned to Afghan lead and ISAF shifted from a combat-centric role to training, advising and assisting.

The multinational force also helped to create the space and lay the foundations for improvements in governance and socio-economic development for sustainable stability.

  • Building capacity and transitioning to Afghan lead

    ISAF provided support to the Afghan government and international community in security sector reform, including mentoring, training and operational support to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP). The aim was to build professional, independent and sustainable forces that were able to provide security to the Afghan people throughout the country. This work was carried out jointly by the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) and ISAF’s Joint Command (IJC), together with the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL Afghanistan) and other important national actors. NTM-A focused on training initial recruits and building the institutional training capability of the ANSF, while the IJC was responsible for developing fielded ANSF units through advice and assistance.

    As the ANSF grew stronger and more capable, a gradual transition to full Afghan security responsibility was launched in July 2011, with the aim of having the Afghan forces fully responsible for security across the country by end 2014, as agreed with the Afghan government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in 2010 and reaffirmed at the NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012 and the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014.

    As a result, ISAF’s role progressively changed from leading operations to enabling the Afghan security forces to conduct independent operations themselves. This meant that ISAF’s mission evolved from one focused primarily on combat to an enabling Security Force Assistance (SFA) role, centred on training, advising and assisting its Afghan partners to prepare them to fully assume their security responsibilities by the end of 2014.

    As the ANSF progressed towards that goal, the ISAF forces gradually stepped back and started to redeploy to their home countries. This drawdown took place in a coordinated, measured and gradual way in line with the ANSF’s capacity to manage the security situation. An important milestone was reached on 18 June 2013, when the fifth and last tranche of transition areas was announced by the Afghan government – with that, the ANSF took the lead for security across the country, a critical step in the transition towards full Afghan security responsibility by end 2014

  • Support for reconstruction and development

    ISAF also contributed to reconstruction and development in Afghanistan through multinational Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) – led by individual ISAF nations – securing areas in which reconstruction work was conducted by national and international actors. Where appropriate – in accordance with Afghan priorities and in close coordination and cooperation with the Afghan government and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – ISAF provided practical support for reconstruction and development efforts as well as support for humanitarian assistance efforts conducted by other actors.

    PRTs also helped the Afghan authorities strengthen the institutions required to progressively establish good governance and the rule of law, as well as to promote human rights. The principal role of the PRTs in this respect was to build Afghan capacity, support the growth of governance structures and promote an environment in which governance can improve.

    By the end of 2014, all PRTs had been phased out and their functions handed over to the Afghan government, traditional development actors, non-governmental organisations and the private sector.

  • ISAF's mandate

    ISAF was first deployed in 2001 on the basis of a request for assistance by the Afghan authorities and a United Nations (UN) Security Council mandate, which authorised the establishment of the force to assist the Afghan government in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas – in particular to enable the Afghan authorities as well as UN personnel to operate in a secure environment.

    At that time, the operation was limited to the Kabul area, and its command was assumed by ISAF nations on a rotational basis.

    In August 2003, on the request of the UN and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, NATO took command of ISAF. Soon after, the UN mandated ISAF’s gradual expansion outside of Kabul.

    While not technically a UN force, ISAF was a UN-mandated international force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Eighteen UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) related to ISAF, namely: 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1707, 1776, 1817, 1833, 1890, 1917, 1943, 2011, 2069, 2096, 2120, and 2145.

    A detailed Military Technical Agreement agreed between the ISAF Commander and the Afghan Transitional Authority in January 2002 provided additional guidance for ISAF operations.

  • Origins and expansion of ISAF

    ISAF was created in accordance with the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Afghan opposition leaders attending the conference began the process of reconstructing their country by setting up a new government structure, namely the Afghan Transitional Authority. The concept of a UN-mandated international force to assist the newly established Afghan Transitional Authority was also launched on this occasion to create a secure environment in and around Kabul and support the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

    These agreements paved the way for the creation of a three-way partnership between the Afghan Transitional Authority, UNAMA and ISAF.

    NATO takes on ISAF command

    On 11 August 2003, NATO assumed leadership of the ISAF operation, bringing the six-month national rotations to an end. The Alliance became responsible for the command, coordination and planning of the force, including the provision of a force commander and headquarters on the ground in Afghanistan.

    This new leadership overcame the problem of a continual search to find new nations to lead the mission and the difficulties of setting up a new headquarters every six months in a complex environment. A continuing NATO headquarters also enables small countries, less able to take over leadership responsibility, to play a strong role within a multinational headquarters.

    Expansion of ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan

    ISAF’s mandate was initially limited to providing security in and around Kabul. In October 2003, the UN extended ISAF’s mandate to cover the whole of Afghanistan (UNSCR 1510), paving the way for an expansion of the mission across the country.

    • Stage 1: to the north

    In December 2003, the North Atlantic Council authorised the then Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General James Jones, to initiate the expansion of ISAF by taking over command of the German-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kunduz. The other eight PRTs operating in Afghanistan in 2003 remained under the command of Operation Enduring Freedom, the continuing US-led military operation in Afghanistan.

    On 31 December 2003, the military component of the Kunduz PRT was placed under ISAF command as a pilot project and first step in the expansion of the mission.

    Six months later, on 28 June 2004, at the NATO Summit in Istanbul, Allied leaders announced plans to establish four other PRTs in the north of the country: in Mazar-e Sharif, Meymaneh, Feyzabad and Baghlan.

    This process was completed on 1 October 2004, marking the completion of the first phase of ISAF’s expansion. ISAF’s area of operations then covered some 3,600 square kilometres in the north and the mission was able to influence security in nine northern provinces of the country.

    • Stage 2: to the west

    On 10 February 2005, NATO announced that ISAF would be further expanded, into the west of Afghanistan.

    This process began on 31 May 2006, when ISAF took on command of two additional PRTs, in the provinces of Herat and Farah and of a Forward Support Base (a logistic base) in Herat.

    At the beginning of September, two further ISAF-led PRTs in the west became operational, one in Chaghcharan, capital of Ghor Province, and one in Qala-e-Naw, capital of Badghis Province, completing ISAF’s expansion into the west.

    The extended ISAF mission led a total of nine PRTs, in the north and the west, providing security assistance in 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. The Alliance continued to make preparations to further expand ISAF, to the south of the country.

    In September 2005, the Alliance also temporarily deployed 2,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to support the 18 September provincial and parliamentary elections.

    • Stage 3: to the south

    On 8 December 2005, NATO Foreign Ministers endorsed a plan that paved the way for an expanded ISAF role and presence in Afghanistan. The first element of this plan was the expansion of ISAF to the south in 2006, also known as Stage 3.

    This was implemented on 31 July 2006, when ISAF assumed command of the southern region of Afghanistan from the US-led coalition forces, expanding its area of operations to cover an additional six provinces – Daykundi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Uruzgan and Zabul – and taking on command of four additional PRTs.

    The expanded ISAF led a total of 13 PRTs in the north, west and south, covering some three-quarters of Afghanistan’s territory.

    The number of ISAF forces in the country also increased significantly, from about 10,000 prior to the expansion to about 20,000 after.

    • Stage 4: ISAF expands to the east, takes responsibility for entire country

    On 5 October 2006, ISAF implemented the final stage of its expansion, by taking on command of the international military forces in eastern Afghanistan from the US-led coalition.

    In addition to expanding the Alliance’s area of operations, the revised operational plan also paved the way for a greater ISAF role in the country. This included the deployment of ISAF training and mentoring teams to Afghan National Army units at various levels of command.