Winter in Afghanistan

Originally published with the title: American Pie

I hadn't planned on spending the night in a tent with Italian soldiers 30 miles from the Iranian border, but that's the way it turned out. And the reasons I ended up getting stranded with the Italian contingent in the dusty western Afghan city of Herat can tell us as much about the promise and limits of US-European cooperation as any of the political or military briefings on the subject I have received in Washington.

While friends were off skiing or whatever, I spent part of my winter break on a trip — with a group of Western 'opinion leaders' — to Afghanistan, to get a sense of the challenges facing the US and European troops over there. Since August 2003, a NATO force of 9,000 mostly European troops has been supplementing the 20,000-strong US force that is fighting Taliban remnants and terrorists in the southern part of the country. Late last year, the alliance decided to deploy 6,000 more troops, including some to the dangerous south, a mission about which some European governments are now having second thoughts.

They should realise that what NATO is doing in Afghanistan is really important. 'Provincial Reconstruction Teams' (PRT) throughout the country provide security and help with jobs like the construction of schools and hospitals and the digging of wells. Seeing troops from 37 different countries working together on the ground to try to bring some stability and development to this dirt-poor country impresses even the most cynical observer. At least in the north and the west of the country, where European peacekeepers drive around in white vans marked ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), they are greeted with smiles and waves from young and old. Said to be deeply sceptical of foreigners, the Afghans seem to welcome the Western effort to help bring them peace after 30 years of war and destruction.

Now back to getting stuck with the Italians and what it tells us about the limits of NATO's commitment. Our visit to Herat was supposed to be a day-trip, to get a sense of how several hundred, mostly Italian and Spanish soldiers, were getting on with their PRT. The day's briefings and tour of the city — apparently one of the country's richest, a fact not particularly apparent from the oxen seen ploughing the barren fields and the rag-tag goods available in the markets — went fine. But when the time came to fly back to Kabul, the lack of resources plaguing NATO's mission became painfully apparent. ISAF's main transport plane, a Dutch C-130, was grounded by propeller trouble, and its other, Danish plane, was undergoing maintenance. A German aircraft based in Termez, Uzbekistan was apparently available, but the Germans are one of the many contributing countries whose forces labour under restrictive national 'caveats', which forbid them from doing things like flying at night or picking up foreigners — so again there was no plane. I agree that stranding a group of Western pundits in Herat is no big deal, but what if NATO actually had to quickly move troops to do something important — like quell a rebellion or deliver emergency supplies?

On the very day when our generous Italian hosts escorted us to the airport (enduring our complaints about the uncomfortable body armour they made us wear), they were attacked by a suicide car bomb, which injured three of them and killed three passers-by. The attack was not an isolated incident but part of a trend whereby Taliban remnants and their Al-Qaeda supporters are copying the methods of the insurgency in Iraq and trying to undermine support for the NATO mission. Indeed, of the nearly 30 suicide attacks that have taken place in Afghanistan since the start of the NATO mission, almost two-thirds have taken place since last summer.

NATO's unprecedented effort to help provide the new Afghan government with enough stability to get off the ground — and to begin to deal with the enormous problems of underdevelopment, drug-running, corruption and warlordism — deserves wholehearted support. As NATO expands its mission — assuming European governments muster up the courage to fulfil their pledges to do so — its staying power will surely be tested by more suicide bombers and roadside explosives. But make no mistake: the West has a huge stake in success in Afghanistan, lest that country again become a global exporter of terrorism, migrants and drugs.