Back Up NATO’s Afghanistan Force

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

January 8, 2006

Getting Europe’s leaders to take on global military missions alongside the United States is not exactly easy these days, with the Continent’s militaries overstretched, its publics inward-looking and America unpopular. That is why NATO’s recent decision to expand its Afghanistan peacekeeping force by 6,000 troops is so significant.

The new troops, all from European countries, will bring the NATO total in Afghanistan to more than 15,000—several thousand more than the number of American troops expected to remain after an upcoming drawdown.

By taking on such a huge and challenging mission, NATO is putting its future on the line. And it is not yet clear that the European governments who are committing to this mission know what they are getting into or have the political will and support to see it through. The Dutch Parliament is already having second thoughts about the 1,100 troops the Netherlands committed to the new mission, and it will decide next month whether this critical component of the expansion will in fact be provided.

The hesitation is unfortunate, because NATO’s Afghanistan mission—its first ever deployment outside Europe—is a remarkable and so far mostly successful development.

NATO’s role started in August 2003, when no other volunteers could be found to take over command of the UN-mandated International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul. Since then the mission has gradually expanded, mostly through the setting up of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in a growing number of cities—first in the north, then the west, and soon in the south. The teams marry military security with direct involvement in tasks like building schools and hospitals and digging wells.

Not everyone likes the concept—nongovernmental organizations fear that NATO is usurping their role, and the French complain that reconstruction is not a job for a military alliance. The reconstruction teams, moreover, have had varying levels of success and are still a work in progress. But it is clearly a job that needs doing and until someone else shows up it’s hard to argue against NATO doing it.

Visiting the NATO mission for a few days gives a sense of the great things it is accomplishing but also real causes for concern.

Seeing troops from 37 different countries working together on the ground to try to bring some stability and development to this dirt-poor country is inspiring even to the most cynical observer. At least in the north and west, NATO convoys are met with smiles and waves from young and old. The inauguration on Dec. 19 of Afghanistan’s first Parliament for more than 30 years—which includes 68 women—is further cause for hope.

Alas, Afghanistan remains a deeply troubled place, and NATO’s staying power has not yet been tested. Violence against Westerners is rising precipitously, as Taliban and Qaeda fighters copy the methods of the Iraqi insurgency and undermine support for the NATO mission. Of the nearly 30 suicide attacks against NATO forces since the mission began, almost two-thirds have taken place within the past six months. European leaders who think they have signed on for a casualty-free traditional peacekeeping operation had better think again, especially as the NATO deployment moves into the more dangerous south.

Nor is it clear that the NATO forces are being provided with the resources and flexibility they need to fulfill their mission. While the overall rules of engagement are fairly robust, each contributing nation is operating under so-called national caveats that strictly limit what their troops can do. A British general involved in the ISAF mission said these “wretched caveats,” combined with the lack of available aircraft, make it hard for him to do his job.

My group ended up receiving an extra day’s hospitality from the Italian and Spanish troops in Herat because ISAF’s main transport plane, a Danish C-130, was grounded by a mechanical problem, and ISAF’s other plane (that’s right—there are only two) was prevented by national caveats from flying at night. This is not the sort of force or set of rules that will protect and rebuild a country of 25 million people.

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 more support. NATO has bet the bank on Afghanistan, and failure there could be a fatal blow to the Alliance and to the future of multinational peacekeeping. More important, it could be a fatal blow to a country that deserves better after 30 years of war.