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Building stability in Afghanistan

Mihai Carp assesses the challenges of and prospects for NATO's Afghan operation as the Alliance expands its presence in Afghanistan.

Running into position: Allied forces will have to be properly manned, equipped and directed both to defend themselves and to head off threats that endanger the mission (© ISAF)

When NATO took over strategic coordination of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in the summer of 2003, the Alliance was making a long-term political commitment to assisting the Afghan government and its people. At the same time, NATO's engagement was a visible sign of how the Alliance was adapting to the security demands of the 21st century – an Alliance ready and willing to contribute to the fight against terrorism and wider international security efforts beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.

Almost three years on, NATO's mission in Afghanistan remains like no other, with particular challenges for the Alliance. Through ISAF, NATO is both fulfilling a key security assistance role in Afghanistan and conceptually breaking new ground. In carrying out its main mission, namely that of assisting the Afghan authorities, the Alliance has taken on new and complex stabilisation tasks in an environment that is far more demanding than that in the other NATO-led operations. In many ways, therefore, Afghanistan has become a test-case of NATO's transformation. From operating in remote, often dangerous areas, to generating the necessary forces to meet the military requirements for a far-away mission, ISAF and NATO are being tested on a daily basis. Ensuring the continued success of this mission is as important for NATO as it is for Afghanistan.

Story so far

In the wake of the collapse of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, the challenges of recreating peace and stability and rebuilding Afghanistan appeared formidable. The country had effectively been at war for more than two decades and was the most heavily mined in the world. According to the UN Development Programme, 70 per cent of the country's 22 million inhabitants were malnourished and life expectancy was 40. In the intervening period, much progress has been made with the result that NATO, the international community and the Afghans themselves, can point to a series of achievements:

  • The Bonn process, formally launched in 2001 after the demise of the Taliban, has successfully come to an end with the carrying out of parliamentary elections last September. Despite dire predictions, these elections – like the Presidential vote in 2004 – took place in a relatively secure and peaceful manner, thanks, in part, to the assistance ISAF provided to the Afghan government to maintain a secure environment. In this way, political pluralism is beginning to take root across Afghanistan and an elected parliament has started to work.
  • The government of President Hamid Karzai gradually continues to expand its influence throughout the country and has managed to bring many regional power brokers, former warlords, into the political fold.
  • Afghan institution-building, while still lagging, is advancing with the help of the international community and individual donor nations.

Ensuring the continued success of ISAF is as important for NATO as it is for Afghanistan

  • ISAF has extended its presence to the west of the country and is seen as an indispensable partner in helping maintain security and stability through its presence in 13 provinces and nine so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). In addition to fulfilling this core function, ISAF troops have assisted in reconstruction; the disarmament of former militias; the cantonment of heavy weapons; and confidence-building measures.
  • Finally, a high-level international conference on Afghanistan bringing together more than 60 delegations, including NATO, was held in London in January, formally ushering in a new phase of cooperation between Afghanistan and the international community. In a sign of continued international commitment to Afghanistan, a further US$ 10.5 billion was pledged. The London Conference also set out an ambitious plan called the Afghanistan Compact for the international community and Afghanistan to build on the positive momentum to bring lasting peace and stability to the country.

Clearly, ISAF will have an important role to play in the ongoing stabilisation process, with 2006 crucial for the evolution of the NATO mission. In the words of NATO's foreign ministers at their meeting in Brussels last December: "We are not only committed to ISAF's evolving operation but are also in the process of moving NATO's support to peace and security in Afghanistan to a new level." Looking ahead, the Alliance will focus on three priority areas: continued ISAF expansion; enhanced assistance to security sector reform efforts such as the training of Afghan security forces; and perfecting the coordination mechanisms between NATO/ISAF and other international organisations and missions operating in Afghanistan.

ISAF expansion

NATO's commitment will first and foremost come to the fore through the continued expansion of ISAF. Having expanded the mission from Kabul, first to the north and then to the west of the country through PRTs, ISAF is now poised to move to the south and, eventually, the east of Afghanistan. Several NATO Allies, including Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, will take the lead in this regard and, together with other Allies and Partners are expected to bring the number of ISAF-led PRTs up to 14. In total, ISAF forces will soon number more than 15 000 troops from 36 NATO and Partner countries.

ISAF expansion

The decision gradually to expand ISAF was formally taken more than two years ago on the basis of existing UN Security Council Resolutions. NATO foreign ministers endorsed a revised Operations Plan for ISAF in December 2005 that provides overall strategic guidance for the next expansion phases. According to this plan, ISAF's mission will essentially remain the same: that of assisting the Afghan government in maintaining security; facilitating the development of government institutions; and assisting with reconstruction and humanitarian efforts. However, it is clear that NATO forces will soon be deployed and operating in areas that are less stable, where the threat is greater and where the security situation remains more tenuous.

This will require a more robust approach to security and stability operations to create the conditions that will allow NATO forces – through the PRTs – to do their job. In other words, Allied forces will have to be properly manned, equipped and directed both to defend themselves and, if necessary, to head off possible threats that endanger the mission. In late January of this year, the North Atlantic Council approved appropriately robust and flexible rules of engagement to cover all eventualities for NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan.

At the same time, ISAF will also be moving into areas where the other international military force, the US-led Coalition, or Operation Enduring Freedom, conducts operations against remaining Taliban, al Qaida, and other opposing military forces. While ISAF will not be involved in counter-terrorism operations per se, the prevailing security environment will require intensified coordination to enable both ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom to carry out their respective missions. New command arrangements will be put in place to this end. The mandates of ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom will remain distinct but complementary. While some ISAF forces will continue to do reconstruction work, or work as trainers, others may have to be called upon to deal with a Taliban attack. ISAF's mission, therefore, also carries new risks for NATO forces that cannot be avoided.

PRT concept

Looking ahead, PRTs will remain the main vehicle through which ISAF expansion will take place. While relatively new and subject to some criticism in the early stages of international military deployment to Afghanistan, the PRT concept, in general, has evolved and is seen as a highly effective means of assisting the Afghan government extend its influence to the provinces. As joint military-civilian teams varying in size and led by different lead nations, they are deployed to selected provincial capitals of Afghanistan and provide a viable alternative to a full-fledged international peacekeeping presence, which is not an option for Afghanistan nor part of the ISAF mandate. ISAF's current PRTs are run by Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States. Several other NATO Allies and Partners make important contributions with either military or civilian personnel. ISAF-led PRTs have helped with countless reconstruction projects; they have mediated between conflicting parties; contributed to the disarmament process of Afghan militias; assisted with the deployment of national police forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA); and generally helped improve the security environment through contacts with local authorities and population.

PRTs are also proving a novel way of effectively bringing together military and civilian actors in the complex task of external assistance to nation-building. Their composition is driven by the logic that stabilisation and reconstruction are two sides of the same coin. As the Afghanistan Compact highlights: "Security remains a fundamental prerequisite for achieving stability and development in Afghanistan but security cannot be achieved by military means alone." While PRTs are still run by lead nations and adapted to regional circumstances, there is a growing realisation that closer coordination – not only on the military side – is desirable to pool common efforts and harmonise their respective activities with the Afghan government's national and regional priorities. It would also be advisable to define more precisely and to the extent possible common guidelines for PRTs.

Security sector reform

Another key military task of ISAF will be to support the Afghan government develop further its own national security forces. Mentoring and supporting the ANA is a case in point. According to the Afghanistan Compact, the Afghan government has committed itself to creating a fully professional, well-trained and ethnically balanced ANA of 70 000 men by 2010. Much progress has already been made in this regard with the help of major donors and lead nations. However, much work still remains to be done. In accordance with the approved Operations Plan, ISAF forces will complement individual training of lead nations by helping ANA units deploy and operate effectively throughout the country. ISAF, together with lead nations and other organisations, will also support the development of the Afghan National Police, within means and capabilities.

ISAF's support to the Afghan government will equally extend to counter-narcotics efforts. Helping Afghanistan rid itself of its highly damaging narcotics industry is one of the most pressing challenges facing the Afghan government, the country's neighbours, and the international community at large. However, the counter-narcotics campaign is not one that the military should, or can solve on its own. Implementing an effective counter-narcotics strategy is closely linked to creating alternative livelihoods; strengthening Afghanistan's law-enforcement agencies and judicial capacities; and combating corruption. For its part, ISAF will not be involved in poppy eradication. However, we will continue to assist through enhanced intelligence sharing; the provision of logistics support to Afghan counter-narcotics agencies; and help with effective counter-narcotics information campaigns.

Finally, NATO and Afghanistan are developing a special cooperation programme in response to a request by President Karzai to help strengthen Afghanistan's central security and defence institutions. This programme – drawing in part on selected instruments developed for the Partnership for Peace – will complement ISAF's activities and be tailored to Afghanistan's needs.

All of the above is meant to achieve one major aim: to allow the Afghan government to assume increasing ownership of and, eventually, full control and responsibility for the country.

Afghanistan as a partner

In moving towards local ownership, NATO/ISAF will continue to work closely with its international partners, including the European Union, G-8 donor nations, Operation Enduring Freedom and the United Nations. While ISAF will fulfil its lead role in security matters, our success will continue to depend on progress made in other areas, such as the rule of law, economic development, creating effective government institutions, and human capacity building. In this way, we will look in particular to the United Nations as it continues to carry out its important civilian coordinating role in Afghanistan. The London Conference displayed a broad international political consensus in this regard. However, we must now focus on implementing this ambitious agenda.

To this end, it is possible to draw on various coordinating mechanisms that already exist on the ground in Afghanistan and include the Afghan government, key military and civilian actors such as ISAF, the European Union and the United Nations. Improving their effectiveness, and "reach" to Afghanistan's provinces, however, is imperative if we are to succeed in our joint efforts of delivering tangible results to the Afghan people. In a positive step, a Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board co-chaired by the United Nations and the Afghan government with the participation of others has been set up to ensure overall strategic coordination of the Afghanistan Compact. Experience has shown that close international cooperation, unity of effort and vision have proved critical in various post-conflict reconstruction scenarios.

Way forward

For ISAF and NATO, the next few years will be decisive as a more stable and secure Afghanistan will have far-reaching benefits. By applying a determined and consistent policy in Afghanistan and carrying out our UN-mandated mission, we will not only help defeat terrorism and contribute to regional stability but create a better life for millions of Afghans who continue to depend on the international community's support. At the same time, the success of NATO's mission in Afghanistan will have a direct effect on the pace and future of NATO's ongoing transformation process.

Similar to when NATO first took on peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, reality on the ground as well as the overall operational and political context of ISAF's mission in Afghanistan continue to drive the Alliance's agenda. Prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, a NATO deployment to Afghanistan seemed unthinkable. Today, one of the Alliance's newest members, Lithuania, is leading a PRT in one of Afghanistan's most remote areas. This evolution is indicative of the profound global changes that we have experienced over the past four years and shows NATO's transformation in action and the Alliance's adaptation to new challenges. It is also indicative of what role NATO may play in the future.

While Allies will clearly continue to have to deal with mission-critical issues such as proper force generation and funding, the success of ISAF's mission in Afghanistan allows us to look towards NATO's Riga Summit in November with confidence. NATO's work in Afghanistan is demonstrating on a daily basis how the Alliance's unique capabilities contribute to the collective efforts of the international community in crisis areas to promote peace, stability, and local ownership. Thanks in part to NATO, the Afghan people have successfully embarked on this path.

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