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NATO in Afghanistan - 17.7.2008
Antonio Giustozzi (Photo:

NATO in AfghanistanDr. Antonio Giustozzi is Research Fellow at the Crisis States Research Centre (London School of Economics). He runs a research project on Afghanistan and is the author of two books, 'War, politics and society in Afghanistan 1978-1992' and 'Koran, Kalashnikov and lapto: the Neo-Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-7'.

NATO only acquired a direct role in Afghanistan in August 2003, assuming control of ISAF, even if several members countries had already been present in the country since 2001. Although formally it was the UN and the Afghan government which requested NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, the development was actually the result of behind the scenes manoeuvring in Washington and in the European capitals. In the early years of its involvement in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was not keen to involve NATO as an organisation, fearing a dilution of Washington’s ability to control the situation and determine local trajectories. It was in fact the German and Dutch government who started arguing in favour of NATO taking over a greater role, hoping to be better able to control military operations in Afghanistan under NATO command than under the pre-NATO involvement ISAF structure. They were also hoping that NATO involvement would legitimise their presence in Afghanistan in the eyes of their internal public opinions. During 2003 Washington warmed to the idea of NATO taking gradually over, seeing both the legitimising effects that it could have, the improvement that it could bring in its relations with its allies and the incentive that it would represent for NATO countries to contribute forces and resources to Afghanistan, in the context of US involvement in Iraq.1

Even once NATO took over ISAF, the actual expansion towards the provinces of the latter took a long time. Only in 2006 non-American NATO members started deploying to southern Afghanistan, almost immediately getting heavily involved in the fighting. This was the most controversial phase of NATO’s expansion, as only a handful of NATO members accepted to send troops to the difficult southern environment. In particular, large NATO members like Germany, Italy, France and Spain came under severe pressure by British, Canadian and American diplomats because of their unwillingness to deploy to the south and for their ‘caveats’ on the use of their troops.2 The Dutch themselves were constantly subjected to severe criticism, despite their deployment to the south, because of their refusal to take part in offensive operations and of their unwillingness to operate in depth inside enemy territory. However, top military officers in most cases understood that military deployments without political support would have been liabilities, implying the risk of a hasty withdrawal of some member countries in the event of significant casualties, and usually did not pay too much attention to the issue.3

Soon the changing situation on the ground led to a shift in the role of NATO in Washington’s strategy. Kabul’s hold on the country looked increasingly precarious and the spread and intensification of the insurgency increasingly obvious from 2006 onwards. By 2007, failure in Afghanistan started appearing as a real possibility and the commitment of most of Washington’s allies was already wavering. Talks of ‘finding a way out’, ‘negotiating a solution’ or downgrading the military commitments were common in most of NATO’s capitals.4 It became obvious that neither Europeans nor Canadians perceived to have much at stake in Afghanistan per se, particularly once the eradication of the poppy culture was de facto postponed sine die. The argument of the war on terrorist organisation did not receive much credit in Europe, to the chagrin of Washington. In order to keep the international coalition united behind itself, increasingly Washington started using a ‘save NATO’ (rather than ‘save Afghanistan’) rhetoric. NATO indeed became in fact the main reason for staying in Afghanistan, as it was widely thought that the organisation might not survive the humiliation of a defeat, or at least be seriously damaged by it in terms of credibility. This blackmail strategy managed to keep all the member states on board, even if by 2008 disillusionment with the Karzai administration was nearly universal and with US military strategies quite widespread too.5

From Washington perspective, NATO’s involvement brought some clear benefits, including a major sharing of the burden of fighting in southern Afghanistan with British, Canadian, Danish and to a lesser extent Dutch troops. Until the NATO-sponsored deployment of 2006, the involvement of non-American troops in the fighting had been largely perfunctory or symbolic. It is also likely that the contributions of NATO members to the training of the army and to the economic side of the counter-insurgency effort would not have been as big if NATO had not been in charge. Finally, together with UNAMA’s support for American policies in Afghanistan, NATO’s involvement contribute to strengthen the legitimacy of American presence and control.

On the negative side, NATO’s role complicated the command and control structure of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, leading to conflict, disagreement and lack of coordination. The different countries involved in NATO’s effort in the south maintain their own separate strategic and tactic approaches and often fail to communicate intelligence. In the case of American forces not incorporated under ISAF command (Operation Enduring Freedom), they operated under a completely separate command and carried out operations often without even informing ISAF.6 Although NATO’s militaries demonstrated tactical proficiency in Afghanistan and showed that the insurgents were no match for them in direct clashes, NATO’s lack of preparedness for operating in Afghanistan’s context and its obvious disfunctionalities allowed its enemies considerable room of political and strategic manoeuvre.7 NATO’s psyop also left unimpressed and gave the impression of being aimed more at convincing public opinion back home than Afghans.8 In the absence of a coherent strategy, some observers argue now that NATO’ failure has become a real possibility.9 In terms of a military defeat, I believe that this is in reality highly unlikely, but NATO might well be forced to negotiating a compromise with the armed opposition, which could be perceived worldwide as a de facto defeat. Indeed it can be argued that NATO’s disappointing performance so far already represent a significant defeat for the organisation, even if it might eventually succeed in quelling the insurgency. Complaints about NATO’s ineffectiveness were emerging already before the fateful deployment to the south. Even a right-winger like former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, in 2005 called in one occasion NATO a ‘zombie organization’.10

The fact that NATO’s propaganda effort insistently tries to portray the insurgents as a small band of terrorists bears witness to the lack of serious consideration in its planning; its inability to bring security or even to prevent insecurity from spreading was only highlight by claims that the Taliban were weak.11

Increasingly the American military seem to have come to the conclusion that NATO might actually be less than the sum of its parts, at least in terms of military impact. The Canadian army and most European ones (with the exception of Britain and France) are neither equipped or trained to fight a counter-insurgency; some are indeed not equipped to fight any war beyond the national borders. In 2008 the Americans started raising demands that command of the southern military region be permanently assigned to one country (US or UK) rather then rotated. They also started expressing open dissatisfaction about the conduct and performance of their allies in such role in the past. Although the Americans backtracked after the British and the Dutch agreed to extend the lengths of their commands and the British pointed out how such a move would have been humiliating to the other allies, the debate was indicative of a mood.12 Because of the commitment in Iraq, the Americans are not able at present to replace their allies. If the planned reduction of the deployment to Iraq will go ahead or will be accelerated after the American presidential elections, 2010-11 might well represent the end of NATO’s involvement in the fighting in the south, at least as far as the Canadians and Dutch are concerned. Even British diplomats are advising London to reduce its profile in the war by 2011, leaving the Americans in practice alone.13

At the same time, the forthcoming American elections might well bring about significant changes even ahead of 2010-11. The general expectation is that changes will be more significant in the event of Barack Obama’s victory, but whoever wins a new situation will be created, which might lead to the breaking of the current deadlock. The new president will likely not be as committed as George Bush to the policy options implemented so far; many particularly with the Department of State, but even at the Pentagon some are pushing for strategic change.14 At the same time, 2009 in Afghanistan will be a time of reckoning due to the planned presidential elections. The security situation, with nearly 40% of the districts already considered by the UN unsuitable for elections to take place, will lend a huge leverage to the armed opposition to demand negotiations in its own terms or to discredit the government and the whole post-Bonn process. In this context, the issue of negotiations will certainly become a matter of intense debate. With the issue of negotiations on the table, several of the wary NATO members might want to seize the opportunity bail out, or might come under growing pressure from their own public opinion to do so.
  1. Kim Sengupta, ‘German and Dutch troops take over Afghan force’, The Independent, 11 February 2003. See Rane, Prasad P. (2007) 'NATO's Counter-Terrorism Strategies in Afghanistan', Strategic Analysis, 31:1, 73 – 91, pp. 82ff.
  2. On the Germans see Paul Gallis, ‘NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance’, Washington : Congressional Research Service, 2006, p. 5.
  3. Personal communication with high rank ISAF officer, Kabul, October 2006.
  4. Personal communications with European diplomats and military officers, Afghanistan and Europe, 2006-8.
  5. Personal communication with EU and member states diplomats, NATO officials and American diplomats, European and Canadian military officers, Kabul and Europe, 2007-8. See also Suhrke, Astri (2008) 'A Contradictory Mission? NATO from Stabilization to Combat in Afghanistan', International Peacekeeping, 15:2, 214 —236, p. 229.
  6. See for example Michael Mihalka, ‘Pashtunistan, NATO and the Global War on Terror’, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 6, No. 1 (2008) p. 51-78, p. 76.
  7. Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and laptop: the Neo-Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, 2002-2007, New York : Columbia University Press, 2008.
  8. Personal communication with British military officers, London, March 2008; personal communication with former NATO official, London, June 2008.
  9. See Tim Shipman, ‘US officials 'despair' at Nato allies' failings in Afghanistan’, Daily Telegraph, 22 June 2008.
  10. Jose Maria Aznar, Speech At The American Enterprise Institute: NATO: An Alliance For Freedom, November 17 2005, dom.11.29.05.pdf>
  11. See for example Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Coalition of the Unwilling’, The Guardian, 7 Nov. 2007.
  12. ‘NATO could end rotating command in S. Afghanistan’, AFP, 9 May 2008; Kim Sengupta, ‘Britain, US differ on Afghan mission’, Gulf Times, 19 February, 2008; Anna Mulrine, ‘In Afghanistan, the NATO-led Force is 'Underresourced' For the Fight Against the Taliban’, U.S. News & World Report, 5 June 2008; U.S.: Lolita C. Baldor, ‘Dutch, British to extend Afghanistan commands’, Irish Sun/ASSOCIATED PRESS, 21 May 2008; Peter Spiegel, ‘Gates says NATO force unable to fight guerrillas’, Los Angeles Times, 16 January 2008.
  13. Personal communication with British and UN diplomats, Kabul, April-May 2008.
  14. Personal communication with US and European diplomats, Kabul and Europe, April-May 2008.

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