On 26 January Secretary of State for Defence John Reid announced that Britain would commit an additional 3,300 troops to the ISAF mission run by NATO in Afghanistan. This is much needed boost for the Alliance and it is a step in the right direction, especially on the eve of the discussions to occur this week in London. One can only hope that the Dutch vote scheduled for early February steps into line with the British and Canadian commitments. The Canadians are sending an additional 2,000 troops.
Currently NATO has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of ISAF, the stabilization and reconstruction mission under European leadership. So far NATO forces cover about 50% of the country. US led OEF forces operate where needed in support of ISAF and on independent anti-terrorist missions. The British deployment will bolster Phase III of the ISAF expansion to the south. The ISAF mission originally started in Kabul and spread northwards. In May 2005 a westward push was started and NATO successfully penetrated the region and established an additional four Provisional Reconstruction Teams by September 2005. Now the Alliance will expand into six additional provinces with four new regional commands and four new PRTS, as well as an additional Forward Support Base in Kandahar. The Canadians will run operations in the South during the transfer of operations for OEF to ISAF. Sometime in autumn 2006, most likely November, the British will take over the brigade HQ.
While this sounds like steadfast commitment in support of the Western objectives to rebuild Afghanistan and establish a working central government, it was achieved much less easily that one would suspect. The NATO operation has been plagued with difficulties, particularly in the area of force generation. Although NATO will finally surpass the 10,000 mark (in number of troops deployed), calls for this to occur have been loud and consistent for over a year now. Last year marked the bloodiest year since the war in 2001 with some 1500 causalities in country. There has been a resurgence of Taliban sympathetic fighters, as well as an insurgency of al Qaeda inspired/affiliated combatants. Allied forces have been loosing troops on a regular basis. Just recently Canada lost a highly skilled and talented diplomat Glyn Berry in a terrorist attack. With the profits from the narco trade at around £2.2 for the last few years and various ‘warlords’ in positions of power and feeling alienated by the West a number of challenges remain.
At this point NATO must finally install security and order into the south of Afghanistan. The idea that Hamid Karzai is the mayor of Kabul has been curtailed with the ISAF pushes to the North and West. With the south still tumultuous though, there is no avoiding the hard reality that NATO must move into the south. While some European states may feel that NATO is being pulled into the back door of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) mission of counter terrorist operations, the lines are not so black and white. Under Canadian influence the mandate for ISAF was established in 2003 to provide security and support for the new Afghani government. The mission is one of stabilization and reconstruction. That said, there can be no stability and there will be no reconstruction unless there is security. It is thus facile to say that one is there to promote stabilization and reconstruction in the face of massive security vacuums. In the south, non-governmental aid organizations that have been in place through the Soviet occupation, the civil war, the Taliban era and the removal of the Taliban have come under attack. Many of the aid operations have pulled out, making the stabilization and reconstruction efforts even more difficult. NATO must not be fooled about the potential challenge ahead. One suspects that NATO members must expect that part of their mission there will entail counter-insurgency operations even if that is not the mandate of the mission. There is no need to change NATO’s mandate, but using the mandate of reconstruction to hide from reality will ultimately be ineffective. No one is expecting ISAF to go out and ‘hunt’ terrorists, but they will have to react when provoked and may need to engage in some pre-emptive operations to ensure the success of the ISAF mission. Eventually the issue of merging ISAF and OEF will come to the table, for the time being though both missions can and should continue to operate in support of each other. When the time is right to merge the operations it will be readily apparent. The Americans in particular must be careful not to push the issue for the sake of their operations in Iraq. It Afghanistan that nurtured the 9/11 terrorists, not Iraq and Washington should not forget this. Europe should not allow the US to cut and run, but at the same time they must remain steadfast in the face of what will be a rather difficult mission. Europe must reconsider the mandate of the ISAF mission. It is inevitable that European forces will need to engage with insurgents in a proactive, rather than reactive manner. In the meantime the West must stay the course in Afghanistan. There is good reason to have faith that the mission will succeed. In 2001 Afghanistan was a staging point for Afghanistan. In 2003 a provisional government was established. In 2004 a constitution was written and a president, seen as legitimate by the nation, was elected. There have been hiccups along the way, but by and large Afghanistan today is headed in the right direction. It is the job of the West to ensure that it stays the course.