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The road to Kabul

Diego A. Ruiz Palmer analyses the significance of NATO's seminal decision to take responsibility for peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

On patrol in Kabul: The presence of peacekeepers is a tangible expression of international commitment to Afghanistan (© Crown Copyright)

Before NATO's Prague Summit last November, the notion that the Alliance would take responsibility, starting this summer, for the command, coordination and planning of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan would have been dismissed as virtually unthinkable. Yet that is precisely what the North Atlantic Council (NAC) agreed in mid-April, launching the Alliance into its first extra-European military mission.

As groundbreaking a development as it is, however, NATO's decision to assume the leadership of ISAF was embedded in the decisions taken by Alliance leaders at Prague calling for NATO to be prepared to support or lead operations and deploy forces, wherever the Alliance decides. Moreover, it reflects a new readiness by the Alliance to use its planning experience and expertise to support non-NATO coalition operations led by individual Allies, as is already the case for the current ISAF III contingent led jointly by Germany and the Netherlands

NATO's decision to assume the leadership of ISAF was embedded in the decisions taken by Alliance leaders at the Prague Summit

In effect, NATO's precedent-setting support of ISAF III was the point of departure for two major developments in Alliance policy which have occurred since Prague. The first concerns the Alliance itself assuming the strategic leadership of multinational operations that were initiated as non-NATO operations, as will be the case for ISAF. The second regards the contribution, on a case-by-case basis, of specialised Alliance know-how and capabilities to multinational operations that are not led by NATO. Based on the precedent of NATO's support for ISAF III at the request of Germany and the Netherlands, Poland sought NATO assistance in May for planning its participation in the US-led international force being assembled to stabilise Iraq.

Both developments point to a further consolidation of NATO's distinct role, on behalf of the international community, as an architect in the planning, organisation, generation and sustainment of complex multinational peace-support operations, combining forces from NATO, Partner and other non-NATO nations. They represent yet another step on the way to fulfilling the vision set out by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson in a speech he gave in London in January 2002, in which he stated that: "NATO has a vital role – in my view, the vital role – to play in multinational crisis prevention and crisis management."

ISAF origins and mandate

The concept of a UN-mandated international force to assist the newly established Afghan Transitional Authority create a secure environment in and around Kabul and support the reconstruction of Afghanistan was embodied in the agreements reached at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. These agreements paved the way for the creation of a three-way partnership between the Afghan Transitional Authority, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and ISAF aiming to lead Afghanistan out of nearly four decades of authoritarian rule, foreign occupation and civil war.

The original ISAF (ISAF I) was established by UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1386 of 20 December 2001. Its mandate was and remains to assist the Afghan Transitional Authority in maintaining security in and around Kabul, so that the Afghan Transitional Authority and UN personnel are able to operate in a safe environment. In addition, ISAF may assist the Afghan Transitional Authority in developing and training Afghan security structures and forces and in civil reconstruction.

ISAF I was led by the United Kingdom and included forces and assets from 18 other nations. Of these, 12 — Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Turkey — were NATO members. Another five — Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Romania and Sweden — were members of the Partnership for Peace. New Zealand was and remains the only non-European contributor. The predominant contribution of NATO nations to ISAF has been a distinctive feature of this operation from its start and helps explain the expanding support role which the Alliance has been playing since Germany and the Netherlands took over command of ISAF III in February of this year.

ISAF was structured into three main components: ISAF headquarters, the Kabul Multinational Brigade and the Kabul International Airport task force. The Kabul Multinational Brigade is ISAF's tactical headquarters, responsible for the planning and conduct of patrolling and civil-military cooperation operations on a day-to-day basis. The United Kingdom provided the core of ISAF's three components until it turned over the leadership of the Kabul Multinational Brigade to Germany in March 2002. These three components have endured through the successive ISAF rotations to this day.

Liaisons were rapidly established with the US Central Command 's subordinate headquarters for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, located at Bagram airbase north of Kabul, and US Central Command's Regional Air Movements Coordination Centre in Qatar. In this way, ISAF was able to draw clear lines between the two missions and coordinate logistical flights into and out of Kabul International Airport with other air activity in and around Afghanistan. ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom are wholly distinct in nature and purpose.

By February 2002, ISAF was well on its way to reaching its full complement and had started patrolling the streets of the Afghan capital. In addition, ISAF I initiated the rehabilitation of Kabul International Airport and hundreds of civil-military reconstruction and humanitarian aid projects, which have been continued and expanded during successive ISAF rotations. Because of ISAF's dual success in bringing a sense of security to a city that had experienced almost none for decades and in restoring essential services, ISAF has enjoyed growing support among the local population.

Leadership challenge

From the beginning, the United Kingdom indicated that it was prepared to lead ISAF for no longer than six months. This raised the prospect that as soon as a nation had taken command of ISAF, the search would have to start for a successor. In the event, Turkey volunteered to take over the leadership of ISAF at the expiration of that period and in June 2002, on the basis of UNSCR 1413, it assumed command of the force. Contributions remained relatively stable. Belgium and Portugal ceased their participation because of competing commitments to NATO-led operations in the Balkans, but five additional Partner nations joined the force: Albania, Azerbaijan, Ireland, Lithuania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.*

Approval of UNSCR 1444 in November 2002 opened the way for Germany and the Netherlands jointly to take command of ISAF III in February of this year, after Turkey had agreed to extend its leadership of ISAF II for two additional months. The number of nations contributing forces increased again, this time by seven. Among NATO nations, Belgium returned to ISAF and Hungary and Iceland made their debut. Four additional Partner countries also joined the force: Croatia, Estonia, Latvia and Switzerland.

The headquarters of the 1 (German/Netherlands) Corps was selected to form the core of the ISAF III headquarters. The commitment of this headquarters represented an innovation in several regards. Since September 2002, the 1(GE/NL) Corps headquarters has been a high-readiness force headquarters, within the new NATO Force Structure, placed in peacetime under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR). Its manning was multinational, comprising personnel from several other NATO nations, in addition to Germany and the Netherlands. Further, the headquarters was fully deployable and equipped with state-of the-art communications and information systems.

By comparison with the United Kingdom and Turkey, which had had to rely on a nationally manned, division-size headquarters to form the core of HQ ISAF, use of the 1(GE/NL) Corps headquarters brought several advantages to Germany and the Netherlands. The joint composition of the corps, the larger size of a corps headquarters staff and its multinational manning enabled the two lead nations to share and more easily assume the burden of leading ISAF and manning the ISAF headquarters.

Not all burdens and constraints had been removed, however. The strategic direction, planning and multinational force generation of ISAF, plus the provision of essential operational capabilities, such as intelligence and communications and information systems support, still fell upon the lead nations.

This meant, for instance, that the ISAF operation headquarters and international coordination centre had to be relocated at every rotation — from the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, near London, to the Turkish General Staff in Ankara, and then again to the Bundeswehr Operational Command at Potsdam, near Berlin — and that the lead nation had to assume the burden of hosting them. Responsibility for scheduling and conducting complex force-generation and force-balancing conferences represents an additional challenge. Lastly, the deployment and redeployment of a headquarters to Kabul every six months is a major logistical undertaking for the lead nations, with attendant resource implications.

NATO support to ISAF III

In the light of these challenges, Germany and the Netherlands turned to NATO in autumn 2002 with a request for support in the planning and execution of ISAF III. Specifically, they requested assistance in the areas of force generation, intelligence, coordination and information sharing, and communications. On 17 October 2002, the NAC approved the request. The following month the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, hosted a force-generation conference for ISAF III. A SHAPE liaison element was posted at the Bundeswehr Operational Command in Potsdam to facilitate coordination and information sharing among ISAF contributing nations which, with the exception of New Zealand, are all members of either NATO or the Partnership for Peace with permanent representations at SHAPE. The ISAF III headquarters was given access to NATO intelligence and communications networks. And SHAPE established for the first time a close working relationship with the European Airlift Coordination Cell at Eindhoven, the Netherlands, to coordinate ISAF's air transportation requirements, breaking new ground in the cooperation between NATO and European multinational staffs.

For the two lead nations, NATO assistance meant being able to draw on the Alliance's wealth of experience and expertise in planning and supporting multinational operations and access to highly specialised capabilities. But while this support alleviated the burdens placed on Germany and the Netherlands, it did not resolve the longer-term challenge of sustaining ISAF beyond ISAF III. From the perspective of operational effectiveness and efficiency, the rotation of a new headquarters to Kabul every six months was not conducive to mission continuity. Further, the six-month horizon of each rotation undermined the Afghan Transitional Authority's confidence in the international commitment to Afghanistan. Lastly, the option of tying down for nearly 18 months — six months each for mission preparation, ISAF rotation and reconstitution — a combat-capable high-readiness force headquarters to perform a relatively low-intensity, peace-support operation, did not represent a wise employment of a high-value NATO asset. These considerations militated for a longer-term alternative to the six-month approach to sustaining the ISAF commitment followed since ISAF I.

NATO leadership of ISAF

Upon taking command of ISAF III in February, Germany and the Netherlands, together with Canada who had volunteered to take over command of the Kabul Multinational Brigade from Germany at the end of the ISAF III rotation, initiated consultations within the NAC with the aim of expanding NATO's support to ISAF. As a result, the NAC decided on 16 April to enhance NATO's support to ISAF by taking on the command, coordination and planning of the operation, while keeping the same name, banner and mission.

The NAC will provide political direction to the operation, in close consultation with non-NATO force contributors, following well-established practice derived from the experience of the Alliance's peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. SHAPE will assume the strategic responsibility of operation headquarters and host the ISAF international coordination cell, while Headquarters, Allied Forces North Europe (AFNORTH) in Brunssum, the Netherlands, will act as the operational-level Joint Force Command headquarters between SHAPE and ISAF headquarters in Kabul.

In order to end the six-month rotation of ISAF headquarters and bring greater stability to the mission, NATO will provide a composite headquarters to form the permanent core of the ISAF headquarters. This composite headquarters will draw on personnel and equipment from AFNORTH's subordinate commands. Joint Command Centre headquartered at Heidelberg, Germany, will provide the next ISAF commander and the initial nucleus of the composite headquarters. The establishment of a Multinational Joint Logistics Centre within ISAF will also enhance and rationalise mutual logistical support among participating nations.

Enhanced NATO support for ISAF will break new ground by giving the next ISAF commander access to the vast pool of staff expertise available in Heidelberg, Brunssum and Mons. Through this "reach-back" capability, the ISAF commander will be able to draw on specialised assets in such areas as strategic planning, without having to deploy these assets into Afghanistan. As a result, without a larger force on the ground and with only a small NATO footprint in Kabul, ISAF will have an enhanced capability to plan and conduct operations. This may allow the Alliance, in due course and in consultation with the United Nations, to consider expanding ISAF's tasks beyond the current mandate. The assumption by NATO of the responsibility of operating the ISAF headquarters will also make it easier for Allies who would have found it difficult to play the role of lead nation to make a strong contribution to ISAF. This will, for example, be the case of Canada when it takes over leadership of the Kabul Multinational Brigade. Lastly, mission continuity will be enhanced by rotating headquarters personnel into and out of Kabul in a staggered way, rather than in large, six-month increments, and by making the basic structure of the ISAF headquarters permanent.

Way forward

Over the past 18 months, under the successive leaderships of the United Kingdom, Turkey and Germany and the Netherlands, ISAF has gone a long way to fulfilling its mandate. By its mere presence, as a tangible expression of international commitment to the emergence of a self-reliant, stable and prosperous Afghanistan, ISAF has contributed to strengthening the Afghan Transitional Authority in Kabul, while providing a security blanket to UN agencies and non-governmental organisations engaged in humanitarian assistance and reconstruction.

ISAF has also contributed to the progressive consolidation of national Afghan institutions, notably by helping train the first units of the new Afghan National Army and national police. Now, ISAF and the Afghan National Army routinely conduct joint patrols in the streets of Kabul, projecting a positive image of teamwork and partnership. In addition, hundreds of civil-military projects have continued apace, in the areas of local administration, infrastructure reconstruction, rehabilitation of schools and medical facilities, restoration of the water supply, health, education, and agricultural technical assistance, instilling a new sense of hope among the civilian population in and around Kabul.

These results have been achieved in spite of enduring risks and constraints. The terrorist threat to ISAF remains a major source of concern, heightened by the June attack in which four German soldiers lost their lives. Persistent Taliban and al-Qaida activity in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan and random factional in-fighting in the country's northern provinces also interfere with ISAF's mission by creating a climate of uncertainty. The drug trade, organised crime and the poor state of the local infrastructure remain longer-term challenges.

In the shorter term, the Afghan Transitional Authority and UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan will have responsibility for managing two key events that will help shape Afghanistan's future in critical ways: the convening of a constitutional Loya Jirga, a grand council peculiar to Afghanistan, in October and the holding of national elections in June 2004. Both events will test ISAF's ability to maintain a secure environment. However, as NATO prepares to assume the leadership of ISAF in August, the Alliance can confidently look forward to building upon the achievements of the earlier contingents, to tackle the tasks ahead.

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