NATO In Afghanistan

The NATO presence in Afghanistan is a huge strategic endeavour of such scale and scope that any present judgments on its outcome are wholly premature.

By Paul Smyth, Head, Operational Studies Programme, RUSI

NATO transferNATO is going through a rough patch. The overt frustration some members have with the Alliance’s inability to shoulder risk equitably in Afghanistan has opened a flood-gate of negative commentary on the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. The extent of criticism has reached deplorable proportions. Much reporting/commentary has comprised merely subjective and selective views of the current situation, while speculative predictions of inevitable doom and failure have assumed an unjustified authority. Chicken-Licken never had it so good, which would be amusing if it were not so serious, for claims and assertions that ISAF/NATO has lost or is losing the war in Afghanistan are most credible when applied to the home-front, where pessimistic assessments of the international endeavour in Afghanistan have become accepted wisdom. This is of great concern for, if concerted action is not taken to stem or reverse the tide of selective and misleading information which pervades the public, media and political arenas, predictions of cataclysmic defeat in Afghanistan will become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Reasons for emphasising or focusing on negative issues vary. At one end of the spectrum are those who have an anti-government or anti-US agenda, who naturally look for any opportunity to promote their position; but others include committed pacifists, opponents of interventionist foreign policies, lobbyists, ill-informed enthusiasts and, at the other end of the scale, those who wish to see progress accelerated through constructive criticism. So it is not that all who criticise the situation in Afghanistan should be opposed or ignored, especially when the ISAF mission demands evaluation: it is an extremely expensive venture, it entails putting significant numbers of people in deadly peril and has significant implications for the authority of the United Nations (ISAF has a UN mandate), NATO credibility and the ability of the International Community to oppose global extremism. Careful analysis of the conduct and progress of the ISAF mission is therefore fully justified, but it must be conducted in an objective manner.

Measuring success and failure

It is clear that many judgments on the progress of the international intervention in Afghanistan are negative in character because it is not recognised that they are based on unrealistic expectations. Thus, despite a near universal understanding that counter-insurgency (COIN) or nation-building missions take decades rather than years to bring to a successful conclusion (and in Afghanistan both challenges are being faced simultaneously), there is no corresponding acceptance that this means there is likely to be little secure improvement after only six years of engagement. Yet without this acknowledgement, observations on the rate of perceived progress, the strength of the enemy, the performance of indigenous Ministries and the capabilities of host-nation security forces are remote from their proper context and lack credibility. Thus, the fact that many Afghan policemen are still corrupt, professionally incompetent and prone to stealing should neither come as a shock, nor be viewed as evidence that in fifteen years time Afghan policemen will not begin to resemble the British ‘Bobby on the Beat’ they are (bizarrely) compared with today.

If observers continually assess the situation in Afghanistan against an inappropriate yardstick, it is no surprise that the mission is repeatedly viewed as failing or already lost. This is not to deny that criticism of progress in Afghanistan can be justified; undoubtedly there are areas of work where a massive expenditure of resources could accelerate progress in the early years of engagement, but the scale of the challenges in Afghanistan and the variable level of international investment in the Afghan mission makes such progress highly difficult (here is an issue where criticism is well founded, as in comparison with other UN peace-building missions, Afghanistan is significantly under-resourced). Furthermore, there are a number of issues where, regardless of investment, progress cannot be cultivated without time. Hence, increased funds might speed up the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army (ANA), but leadership in combat and battlefield experience cannot be gained ‘overnight’. The same is true of endemic corruption, social values, local attitudes to central government and the dynamics of community loyalties. Many of the fundamental changes necessary in Afghanistan can only happen gradually, so it is insidious to observe and complain that, for example, warlords still wield power, the Taliban still extends influence and the poppy crop continues to prosper in areas of instability. Unfortunately, it is not possible to create a graph with ‘Success’ on one axis and ‘Time’ on the other, onto which a definitive line may be drawn that delineates the ‘normal’ rate of progress for such an undertaking as Afghanistan, against which the situation after 5, 10, or 24 years may be gauged. If it were, there would be a yardstick by which judgments on success or failure could justifiably rest. But there is no such credible graph, no definitive model that would help indicate ‘how things are going’, and in the absence of such a tool perhaps the only certainty is that without time there can be no success in Afghanistan - a principle many observers and commentators would do well to assimilate.

NATO Unity

Turning to the problem of NATO members’ varying commitment to the ISAF mission, it is premature to forecast the demise of the Alliance, especially when there has been sufficient friction in relations with Russia to remind NATO members of the Alliance’s core function. Although the shedding of soldiers’ blood is naturally generating tension and demands for shared risk-taking, the reality is that national self-interest normally assumes more importance than coalition appeals. The requirement is then to create latitude for compromise. However angry nations suffering the brunt of casualties in Afghanistan may become, such angst is unlikely to generate sufficient sympathy in the populations of states with a lower resilience for casualties to produce a change in their current policy. Attempts to shame such members into more robust action are unlikely to work. For instance, whatever the plea from Washington, Berlin will still have to vote annually on the continued German military mission in Northern Afghanistan. This, and the deep public resistance to the Bundeswehr actively fighting insurgents, fundamentally impacts on the nature of Germany’s ISAF engagement. That is an unwelcome political reality which can be railed against but must ultimately be accepted. Similarly, it is unlikely that whatever happens next in the South of Afghanistan will elicit a substantial wave of new forces. Should the fighting increase, appetites for becoming involved would lessen, while a reduction in fighting would undermine the argument for reinforcements. The disappointing reality may be that ISAF/NATO commanders will have to do more with what they have, rather than have more to do with.

The restrictions nations place on the employment of their contribution to ISAF cause its Commander, General McNeil, many and serious operational difficulties, but these would be minor compared to those following a withdrawal of the German, Spanish, Italian or Scandinavian forces deemed unwilling to get involved in combat. Frustrating as their passivity may be, unless they can be replaced with more robust forces, they remain a necessary part of the ISAF coalition. Of more concern is the resilience of the nations currently shouldering the burden of that combat, and the suggestion that Canada may not extend its presence in Kandahar unless 1000 reinforcements are found from elsewhere is significant, but would still not inevitably cause ISAF to unravel. Assuming the Canadian announcement is more than rhetoric designed to goad allies into action (the Poles have already offered Canada the use of 2 helicopters), it provides a year for the ANA to increase its presence in Kandahar, for security to improve there, or in which to find support from within or beyond NATO. And if Canada really did forfeit the gains made and blood spilt in Kandahar by withdrawing its contingent in 2009, the US military is capable of succeeding the Canadian Joint Task Force of 2500 personnel (e.g., the forthcoming additional US Marine Corps deployment to Afghanistan is of 3200 troops). Such a move might follow anyway if calls for a redrawing of the military areas of responsibility in Afghanistan gain traction (as suggested to the US House Armed Services Committee in January by retired Lieutenant General Barno, a previous Commander of international forces in Afghanistan).

Enhancing ISAF cohesion

In searching for compromise solutions to NATO’s ‘split’ over Afghanistan there are steps which could be taken to preserve the cohesion of the world’s largest military organisation. These include:

Making greater contributions to the training of the ANA and ANP. ISAF is standing in the breach pending the arrival of sufficient Afghan security forces of the requisite capability and quality to shoulder responsibility for their own national security. One encouraging area of progress routinely ignored in Western commentary on Afghanistan is the steady growth and capability of the ANA. Observations that highlight how ferocious, brave and tenacious insurgents from the Pashtun region can be could also be applied to the government forces recruited from tribes with the same martial heritage. Yet, illogically, eulogies about fighting proficiency tend to be made of only the insurgents. The improving performance of the ANA is to NATO’s credit and advantage, but accelerating that process by abbreviating the prescribed training would be counter-productive. Committing Afghan forces to combat prematurely would invite defeat and provide the insurgents with operational and moral successes. However, another way of producing the necessary Afghan forces is to expand the capacity of the ANA training system. This would require many more military instructors and much additional equipment for the newly formed Kandaks (Afghan battalions). Neither is this measure a panacea, as many current ISAF-manned Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) embed with ANA units and provide direct support to their Afghan charges when they are in combat areas. Consequently, those NATO members most concerned about casualties would be unlikely to expose their training staff to ‘unacceptable’ danger. Nevertheless, significantly enhanced NATO training support to the ANA would add an important impetus to achieving an Afghan solution to Afghanistan’s problems.

A substantial increase in the resources provided directly to those nations engaged in combat operations. There are a number of ways in which the NATO members who do not routinely conduct combat operations could help those that do. For example: the Canadians already operate Leopard II main battle tanks which are on loan from the German Army. Such provision of additional advanced equipment to augment the normal ORBAT (Order of Battle) of the nations engaged in combat should be vigorously pursued. Similarly, if those nations need to procure extra equipment (e.g. the UK’s acquisition of Mine Resistant Ambush Protection (MRAP) vehicles) to enhance their combat performance or reduce their vulnerability to casualties, other NATO members could fund, at least partially, the acquisition. This would obviously involve significant negotiation in capitals but the situation in Afghanistan appears to merit the need for extraordinary action, even in the financial arena. Force protection measures, either for personnel, vehicles, helicopters or static facilities is one area where even parochial concerns about information or equipment sharing (e.g. electronic jamming devices) would not prohibit a meaningful contribution to be made and there would be others. To maximise the potential benefits of enhanced Alliance support perhaps a (rapid) formal NATO agreement is needed for such support to be provided on an obligatory basis. Also, beyond the provision and procurement of equipment, those forces engaged in the Southern provinces should never lack money (cash) with which to conduct the Quick Impact Projects that can achieve crucial local consent. NATO should therefore ensure that a pool of funds is made available for immediate use by commanders in the immediate battle zone. For instance, if Italian troops are not able to spend Italian money to oppose the Taliban influence in Uruzgan, then Dutch troops should be.

Enhancing Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR). In January, General McNeil publicly noted the importance of ISTAR capabilities. The provision of additional ISTAR assets would not only assist ISAF but also aid the developing operational capability of the ANA. The ISTAR arena provides an excellent opportunity for nations to make a valuable contribution to ISAF’s overall effectiveness without significantly adjusting their current approach to risk. Italy, Spain, France and Germany have air forces with the capability to conduct ISTAR missions. The Luftwaffe already flies Tornado reconnaissance aircraft over Afghanistan and should be encouraged to expand that contribution. Available ramp space from which to base air operations would limit the number of additional aircraft that could be based in-country, and the limited regional infrastructure would also constrain the level of air operations that could be achieved over Afghanistan, but NATO’s Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) and Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) capacities extend far beyond the present requirement in Afghanistan.

AAR would enlarge the area from which air operations could be mounted and UAVs could be based in-country with a smaller footprint than that for manned aircraft. An enlarged air effort would necessitate a substantial commitment of resources but is an area within the Alliance which is under-utilised and which could be expanded without significantly increasing the danger posed to NATO personnel. Increased ISTAR capacity would undoubtedly also entail a requirement for additional personnel to collate, analyse and disseminate the additional mass of ISTAR information, yet these would essentially remain in headquarters and air bases, not be exposed to danger in combat areas. Intelligence, to which ISTAR assets make a critical contribution, is a fundamental pre-requisite for successful COIN operations.

For ISAF, the existence of insurgent support bases in Pakistan increases the importance of conducting surveillance of the extensive border area, especially as the remote and inhospitable nature of the terrain makes monitoring by ground forces extremely difficult. In addition, the need for an enhanced ISTAR ORBAT is amplified by ISAF’s paucity of combat units, so those which are available must be employed with the utmost efficiency. That goal is facilitated by the availability of timely all-source intelligence, to which ISTAR assets make an invaluable contribution. Too often, insurgents move into and within Afghanistan without detection and have been able to ambush ISAF patrols or units that are in transit. NATO members must ensure that this should never happen because of a lack of ISTAR assets.

For decades, NATO has pooled resources to generate capability (e.g. the NATO Airborne Early Warning And Control (NATO AWACS) Force), and it may be that a similar solution should be adopted to provide ISAF with UAVs and other ISTAR assets in Afghanistan.

In conclusion, the UN-mandated mission to support the elected government in Afghanistan is a huge strategic endeavour of such scale and scope that any present judgments on its outcome are wholly premature. Time is of the essence, especially given the desultory character of much of the international commitment to the mission. Observers should cease using unrealistic expectations as a basis for judgment and exercise greater strategic patience. More emphasis should be given to areas where substantial progress in Afghanistan has been made, although criticism could and should be made to elicit the level of international effort that the undertaking requires. Those frustrated within NATO must not lose sight of what is within the art of the possible.

There is no value in persisting with issues that cannot be changed, but enormous benefit in vigorously pursuing additional contributions that are within the realms of possibility. The training of Afghan security forces, the level of tangible support given by all Alliance members to those in combat and the provision of enhanced ISTAR capabilities each provide opportunities for NATO to do better at working within the constraints that limit its operation. The longer-term consequences and elemental implications of what the variable commitment to Afghanistan means for NATO as a whole should be dealt with separately, and kept from damaging the execution of its mission there.

Paul Smyth - Head, Operational Studies Programme, RUSI

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

See also

After Ashdown, where to for Afghanistan?

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