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Great expectations

Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier examines the challenges facing both Afghanistan and NATO in the run-up to elections.

Gather round: The international military presence helps ordinary Afghans to rebuild their lives without fear (© Crown Copyright )

The Afghan New Year is a time of hope for Afghans, and this year's celebrations on 20 March marked some significant achievements for the country. In the two years since the fall of the Taliban, a long-absent sense of security has returned to Kabul. The city is also experiencing a mini economic boom as refugees make their way home, markets are flourishing, and new constructions are springing up amid the ruins of the old town. A new constitution has been agreed that is now guiding the country's political development. The five-year drought that brought such hardship for farmers has been tempered by fairly regular rainfall. And perhaps most significantly for the country's long-term prospects, more than five million boys and girls – the largest number of students ever in Afghanistan – returned to school on 21 March.

These are very real successes for Afghans, who are benefiting from international financial, political and military assistance. At the Berlin Conference at the end of March and beginning of April, the international community pledged to invest US $8.2 billion in the country during the next three years. And some 6,500 NATO-led peacekeepers in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assure the daily security of the people of Kabul and the immediate area around Konduz in the northeast of the country.

The NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Konduz is also nominally responsible for security in the four northeastern provinces of Konduz, Baghlan, Takar, and Badakhshan, although that huge swathe of territory is too large for security to be adequately assured by a single PRT. Secure conditions exist in the capital and around Konduz that permit international aid workers to rebuild infrastructure, education and health services, and to facilitate the spread of the central government's influence and the rule of law. This success now needs to be replicated throughout Afghanistan. Maintaining the momentum of the political process that was begun at the 2001 Bonn Conference – at which Afghan leaders gathered to plan their country's reconstruction after the defeat of the Taliban – is essential and is the key to facilitating the orderly conduct of free and fair elections scheduled for later this year.

Despite these indications of progress, very real threats continue to loom over the country and its people. The threat of international terrorism smoulders in the rugged countryside of the south and east where the US-led forces of Operation Enduring Freedom are currently seeking to root out the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaida. Terrorist and insurgent groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, continue to plot urban attacks and foment violence against aid workers and international security forces assisting Afghans.

The drugs problem poses another threat. The cultivation of poppies to produce opium is spreading like a cancer in many rural regions of the country. Indeed, Afghanistan is currently providing 95 per cent of the heroin consumed in Europe and 75 per cent of the world's supply. Drugs are gradually eating away at the moral and cultural fabric of what was traditionally a conservative society. Large private armies are maintained by recalcitrant regional commanders reluctant to recognise the legitimate authority of the central government for fear of losing their grip on local power. Those commanders willing to demobilise have few viable economic alternatives to offer their soldiers.

One immediate challenge overshadows all others: the organisation of free and fair elections

In most regions outside the capital, the economy remains grossly under-developed with the exception of the narcotics business and organised crime. Returning refugees and internally displaced persons face extreme poverty and have meagre opportunities to rebuild their lives. The development of human capital remains stunted due to illiteracy and ignorance, lack of hygiene and health services, appalling infant and maternal mortality rates, and profound destruction of all types of infrastructure.

This is not an exhaustive list of the challenges facing Afghanistan. But it must be acknowledged that the threats to the people of Afghanistan, with whose consent the Alliance and ISAF operate in the country, also constitute direct threats to the success of the NATO mission. Moreover, as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has repeatedly said, the security of all NATO nations depends on progress and stability in Afghanistan to the extent that the Alliance cannot afford to fail.

While there are many long-term challenges facing both Afghans and NATO in Afghanistan, there is one immediate challenge that overshadows all others: the organisation of free and fair elections, including the voter registration process that must precede them. It is here that NATO must now focus its efforts, for failure to support the political process in the short term will undermine the Alliance's ability to achieve its longer-term goal of building a stable and secure Afghanistan. Since taking the leadership role in ISAF last August, NATO has benefited from and built on the reputation and credibility that ISAF had built up during the first 19 months of its existence. Now the Alliance has reached the point where its credibility has come to rest on the level of real security support it can provide to the government of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan prior to the elections, which are currently scheduled for September.

For some time now, much of NATO's focus has been on developing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), with the creation of additional PRTs becoming practically synonymous with the expansion of ISAF into other regions of Afghanistan. The PRTs have demonstrated that they are an effective method of providing a limited security presence, building confidence, and coordinating reconstruction activities. But PRTs are not an end in themselves; they are simply one means among many available to NATO of achieving longer-term success.

A network of NATO-led PRTs, starting in the north and then spreading to the west of Afghanistan, requires significant military capabilities to knit it together. These include aviation assets ranging from tactical airlift to close air support; forward support bases for supplying and maintaining the network; command and control structures; quick reaction forces that are light enough to move rapidly, but powerful enough to serve as a meaningful deterrent or effective enforcer; and the communications, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities that provide the knowledge base without which the force cannot effectively function.

Such a network is not intended to be the sole provider of security in Afghanistan, nor an open-ended commitment. Indeed, responsibility for security ultimately resides with the government of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, with a NATO-led ISAF providing the security space necessary for indigenous security structures to spread their influence steadily throughout the country. When they have done so, international military forces will be able to leave Afghanistan, confident that the country can look after its own security needs. Sufficient capacity does not yet exist, however, for the Afghan government to assume the full extent of its responsibilities, with the result that the ongoing support of international military forces remains vital. That support serves two complementary and positively reinforcing functions: it reassures ordinary Afghans that their security needs are being addressed so that they may rebuild their lives without fear; and it emboldens the growing Afghan security agencies to accelerate their evolution into fully formed, responsible and effective guarantors of the rule of law.

The physical component of NATO's commitment to ensuring security in Afghanistan depends on a robust network of PRTs and their enabling capabilities. Its moral component, in the immediate term, rests on the timely expansion of ISAF so that the force is able to make a meaningful and visible contribution to security during the electoral process. To be sure, this security assurance will not take the form of ISAF soldiers guarding every polling booth or being on every street corner; but a visible, mobile and robust presence providing the necessary security and political space, which is the sine qua non of free and fair elections, will go a long way to allay residual fears among the population.

Having been on the receiving end of dubious commitments of support in the past, Afghans have reason to be sceptical. Nevertheless, the enormous credibility ISAF currently enjoys within Afghanistan has engendered confidence in NATO and patience with the pace of ISAF's expansion to date. Expectations are, however, high, and from the point of view of Afghans, who see the upcoming elections as the seminal event for the future peace and development of their nation – with all of the corresponding implications for global security – time is running out.

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