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NATO's New Afghan Challenge

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
Updated August 3, 2006

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The U.S. military has handed over military duties in Afghanistan's unruly southern provinces to NATO, whose forces had previously been deployed only to relatively peaceful regions in the north and around the capital, Kabul. The gravity of the handover became immediately apparent, with four NATO soldiers killed and a number wounded in a series of attacks by Taliban fighters soon after the alliance assumed responsibility for security in the south (AP). Still, the increase in NATO troop strength will allow the U.S. military to shift more of its forces to the violence-plagued Afghan-Pakistani border region, as this new Backgrounder explains.

There are two military command structures in Afghanistan: the 22,000-member U.S.-led coalition, and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), consisting of roughly 18,000 troops. The coalition mission, outlined in this Backgrounder, comes as the Taliban has stepped up its activity in the region, killing hundreds of Afghans in shootings, suicide attacks, and roadside bombings. Taliban fighters are growing bolder, often mimicking the headline-grabbing tactics of insurgents in Iraq, and moving into smaller towns in southern Afghanistan and taking them over until U.S. air strikes drive them out (RFE/RL).

The U.S. military operation, known as Operation Mountain Thrust, is laying the groundwork for future handovers of territory to NATO, expected this fall in Afghanistan's east. But the latest battles shed doubts on the defense alliance's ability to control the region after the Americans leave. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times, says one of NATO's biggest challenges is "getting members to volunteer troops, and to do so without placing too many caveats on their deployment." Yet Lt. Gen. David Barno, the former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, tells CFR.org the United States will make sure its NATO allies are able to handle the task. "The United States will not do the handoff to the NATO forces unless they are fully capable of taking on the same area with the same mission capabilities," he says.

Martin Sieff of UPI writes that the conflict in southern Afghanistan—where NATO soldiers are fighting while lacking "the numbers, the air power, and the logistical support to even defend themselves adequately"—could break the longstanding alliance. Reuters agrees that the Afghanistan conflict, which is effectively the first ground war of NATO's history, will be a huge test for the alliance. This new Backgrounder examines NATO's steadily expanding mission and membership. Francesco Vendrell, the EU envoy to Afghanistan, says NATO troops will have until the fall to prove to a skeptical Afghan public it can bring security to the battle-worn south. In addition to the south, NATO forces are deployed in most of Afghanistan's provinces, in many cases serving as the military arm of provincial reconstruction teams.

The escalating violence is putting increasing political pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has lashed out at neighboring Pakistan for aiding Taliban fighters (BBC). President Pervez Musharraf and other Pakistani officials have denied the charges, citing the presence of some 90,000 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border as evidence of their country's commitment to reining in terror attacks (AP). Ahmed Rashid writes for YaleGlobal Online that the Taliban's resurgence is threatening stability in the region as well as the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. A CFR special report calls on coalition powers to press the Pakistani government to arrest Taliban leaders there and to move aggressively to shut down networks aiding suicide bombers.

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