The US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently announced that 3,200 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division currently in Afghanistan will be put on extended deployment for an additional 120 days. The White House also requested from Congress an additional $8bn to further development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. This is a wise move, one that recognizes the fundamental importance of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It will help to rectify the lack of attention given to Afghanistan by Washington policy-makers and it bolsters NATO in the face of what is certain to be a strong spring offensive by the Taliban. But the US cannot be the only country to deepen its involvement and Washington should make it clear that this latest investment in Afghanistan must be part of a larger Allied effort.
For some time now discussions concerning burden sharing in Afghanistan have been at boiling point. The NATO summit at Riga in November raised the issue, but member states did not volunteer to provide more troops. It is quite obvious that there are certain NATO members doing a disproportionate share of the fighting in southern Afghanistan. While every NATO member in Afghanistan is making a useful contribution, there can be no denying the fact that with the Alliance facing a tough spring offensive there should be a focus on strengthening NATO’s combat capability. Allies who think that they can simply contribute to missions in the more peaceful North and West, while avoiding the more volatile South, should seriously consider the implications of their decisions.
It is quite apparent that countries such as Germany do not want to fight in the South because of domestic political issues. This is very understandable and Germany has done some excellent work in Northern Afghanistan. But, German policy-makers must realize that if publics in Canada, the Netherlands, the US and UK feel that they are being asked to sacrifice too much while others ‘freeload’, then the entire mission is in jeopardy. Even if these publics continue to support their countries’ engagements in the South, there is a good chance that without additional troops NATO will lose ground to the Taliban this spring. Such losses will encourage further Taliban action and it is only a matter of time before insurgents can endanger progress in the North. The investment in reconstruction and development in the North dictates that such investments should be protected by also addressing the problems in the South – problems that require military capability. NATO will most likley bolster the allied presence along the boarded to Pakistan and it will need more support from the member states to pull the job off properly. The task will not be an easy one.
Last year violence in Afghanistan was phenomenal. There were over 1,600 roadside bombs in 2006, compared with around 700 in 2005. Direct-fire encounters between NATO forces skyrocketed from around 1,500 in 2005 to just over 4,500 in 2006. This does not mean that NATO is losing in Afghanistan. In fact, NATO dealt serious blows to the Taliban offence last summer. But there is no denying that the Alliance has a long way to go in eliminating the Taliban as a security threat. If NATO fails to bolster the troop numbers in the South now, the Alliance may very well find itself on the back foot come this summer. Currently, it looks as if ISAF may encounter upwards of 15,000 insurgents this spring. Only a fraction of these – perhaps around 5,000 - will be serious, hard core fighters. Nonetheless the challenge will be substantial. The Taliban will most likely not attack NATO head on like they did in 2006, but will choose to use asymmetrical tactics that will require a NATO presence throughout the South. The current NATO troop levels will not be able to provide such coverage. The British may increase forces if there is a drawdown of UK numbers in Iraq and the 1,200 troops from Poland will be a big help. Meanwhile in Italy, Romano Prodi is fighting rear guard action to maintain funding and support for the 1,800 Italian troops in Afghanistan. It seems highly unlikely ISAF will get the 10-15,000 additional soldiers needed to get the job done right. At the very least the Alliance could use more special forces assets, but whether they are forthcoming also remains to be seen.
There is no escaping the fact that Afghanistan is on the brink of success or failure. Success will not be found in military action alone, but the plain and simple fact is that a very strong Taliban is waiting to push NATO this spring. Some member states have recognized the sacrifices that need to be made. Others, however, need to pressure their publics to understand the implications of failure and the necessity to commit 100 percent to the mission in Afghanistan. Anything less will result in failure. NATO will be a discredited Alliance and the people of Afghanistan will face the return of a regime where the highlight of the football match was the public stoning at half-time.
Dr Michael Williams is Head of the Transatlantic Programme at RUSI.
The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.