It hasn’t gotten as much ink as Iraq, but violence in Afghanistan has been up sharply over the past year. U.S. and Afghan forces suffered more casualties in 2005 than in any year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and there has been no slackening in the first six months of 2006. Suicide bombings and sophisticated roadside bombs, once limited to Iraq, are appearing in Afghanistan with disturbing regularity. The Taliban are becoming bolder. So are their narco-trafficker allies. The poppy business is booming, accounting for more than a third of the country's gross domestic product. (Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, the source of over 80 percent of the heroin consumed in Europe.)
The picture is not unrelievedly bleak. Afghanistan has low inflation and a stable currency. And it has a popularly elected government—not only president Hamid Karzai but also a National Assembly that has proven surprisingly assertive in challenging Karzai’s court appointments and spending plans. By all accounts, most Afghans support their democratic leadership and do not want to see a return to the bad old days when even kite-flying was a crime. But they also want and need security and economic development, neither of which the government is capable of delivering.
The Afghan government is as dependent on foreign aid as any on earth: Kabul raised only $269 million in tax revenues last year, while spending $561 million. International donors contributed another $2 billion. Karzai’s grip has expanded but remains tenuous, with warlords in control of large swaths of the countryside. The police are noted mainly for their corruption, which is not surprising since many have not been paid in months. The best hope for the country is the growth of the Afghan National Army, but so far it has only 30,000 troops, and they are incapable of operating without extensive support from the United States and other foreign sponsors.
Enter NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has already taken control of the relatively peaceful northern and western provinces of Afghanistan. In August it will expand its control to the tumultuous south, long a Taliban stronghold. In the fall, if all goes well, NATO will take over the eastern provinces too, along the border with Pakistan. When that happens, some 7,000 U.S. troops will fall under NATO command and the alliance will control the entire country, although around 10,000 American soldiers will continue to operate under U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Is NATO up to the challenge? Can it pacify this sprawling nation of deserts and mountains, populated by 31 million of the poorest people on earth? Will it have the resources and the will to confront homicidal religious fanatics and ruthless drug lords?
A whirlwind trip to Kabul and Kandahar, organized by NATO for a group of policy analysts and journalists, did not leave me sanguine about the answers to those questions. I did come away with admiration for the nations that are willing to undertake such a daunting task. The most gung-ho are Britain, Canada, and, surprisingly, the Netherlands, which together are sending 6,700 troops to the south—more than the United States deploys in that region. Romania, Estonia, and Australia are contributing smaller contingents, totaling under 1,000 soldiers.
In Kosovo and Bosnia, NATO troops were strictly limited to “peacekeeping.” That is also the role of the NATO troops deployed to Kabul and the northern and western areas, where the Taliban have little support. But it's a different matter in the Pashtun-dominated south. Here, a war is raging, and NATO is getting into the middle of it.
A visit to Kandahar Airfield, the hub of operations in the south, found breakneck expansion underway. U.S. cargo aircraft, fighters, Predator drones, helicopters, Dutch Apache gunships (and soon F-16s), British Harrier jump jets—all maintain a frenetic pace of operations. One officer told us this was the busiest single-runway military airfield in the world. More runways are under construction, as are hangars, barracks, and recreation facilities. Two concrete plants located on the base are constantly churning away, and large numbers of fuel tankers are making the drive from Pakistan.
Similar expansion is going on inside the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) headquarters compound in downtown Kabul—located, inauspiciously enough, on the site of a cantonment occupied by the British army during two famously unsuccessful imperial forays into Afghanistan in the 19th century. (“Third time lucky,” joked the British brigadier who runs the base.)
ISAF was born in 2002, when some of America’s allies contributed forces to keep the peace in Kabul, while U.S. troops focused on hunting the Taliban and al Qaeda in the southern and eastern provinces. NATO took over ISAF in 2003, and since then its mandate has been steadily expanding. The headquarters compound is taking in more and more personnel from nations as disparate as Germany and Macedonia.
European officers pride themselves on taking a softer approach to counterinsurgency than the supposedly gun-happy Americans. ISAF troops are supposed to focus on providing security, jumpstarting economic development, and, above all, on facilitating the work of 21 civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams spread across the country. They are not supposed to chase bad guys.
That’s all well and good in theory but difficult to implement in practice. What do commanders do if they get intelligence on Taliban fighters gathering a few miles away? Wait to be attacked, or strike first? For American officers it would be a no-brainer. But NATO troops have the difficult task of interpreting rules of engagement laboriously negotiated among 26 nations. They are not allowed to mount offensive operations, but they can engage in “proactive self-defense operations.” Meaning what? That will be up to individual commanders to decide.
One can be pretty confident that some contingents, for instance the British and Canadians, will take a broad view of their mandate. Others, however, are likely to take a narrower interpretation, which is why so many Afghan government officials are pleading with U.S. troops not to turn over their areas to NATO replacements. And it is not only Afghans who are concerned: During our visit to Kandahar Airfield, a British officer was overheard berating a Dutch air force officer for limiting his activities to tame convoy escorts and not having the guts to engage in real combat.
There are some 70 separate national caveats limiting what NATO troops can do. Some of these restrictions are relatively innocuous—e.g., troops are not allowed to operate outside of Afghanistan. Others forbid some troops from taking part in combat operations or even from using chemical riot control agents like tear gas. The complete list of caveats is secret—you don't want to let the enemy know what your forces cannot do, not to mention that many European nations would be embarrassed to have the full list of their caveats revealed.
Among the more important restrictions is that ISAF is not allowed to fight drug production and trafficking. Although ISAF can assist Afghan forces in counter-narcotics efforts, they are not supposed to take on these missions themselves. That could be a big problem, because in Afghanistan, as in Colombia, the insurgency is intimately linked with the drug barons. The Taliban made a big show in 2001, their last year in power, of cracking down on poppy cultivation. But knowledgeable observers believe their motive was cynical—to drive up the value of their own opium stockpiles. Today, despite their own restrictive brand of Islam, the Taliban are happy to cooperate with the drug barons, who provide a ready source of funding.
Further funds—as well as base camps for training and recruitment—are available in next-door Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf has occasionally sent his forces at U.S. prodding to bag al Qaeda bigwigs, but he has done precious little to crack down on the Taliban and their ilk—whether because he simply does not exercise any real control over Pakistan's frontier provinces (as he claims) or because his government (or elements thereof) still backs the Taliban as an instrument of Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan. The Bush administration continues to dance a delicate minuet with Musharraf, pressuring him to get tough while being careful not to undermine his authority. The upshot is that the Taliban enjoys an essential prerequisite for successful guerrilla operations—secure rear areas. Just as U.S. forces in Southeast Asia could do precious little about the Ho Chi Minh Trail running through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, so now they can do little about the Islamist supply line running through the Khyber Pass.
This is quite a challenge for any military force, much less one with NATO’s limited resources. It’s hard enough to get member states to cough up troops; harder still to get are transport helicopters and aircraft, of which there is a notable deficit outside of the U.S. armed forces. And no wonder: Defense spending outside America is anemic. For years, NATO has urged members to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. The actual average, excluding the United States (which spends more than 3.5 percent), is 1.94 percent—and falling. And that figure is inflated by high levels of defense spending in Greece and Turkey, where the armed forces are preparing not for NATO missions but for fighting one another.
It has taken a lot of public prodding and behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the part of the Bush administration (for which it has gotten scant credit among critics who bemoan American “unilateralism”) to get NATO to commit a force as substantial as the one in Afghanistan. There are already 9,000 coalition troops in the country (not counting American soldiers), a number due to grow to 17,000 by the end of the summer and larger still in the fall. But will European states keep sending soldiers for the many years that it will take to make any significant progress? And how will they react when they take the inevitable casualties?
Given all the risks attendant to NATO’s takeover, it would be shortsighted to see this as an excuse to prematurely pull out U.S. forces. There are currently 20,000 U.S. troops in the country, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seems eager to withdraw at least 4,000 and possibly more. He is also reducing U.S. support for the Afghan National Army, which was supposed to reach 70,000 soldiers (itself an inadequate figure) but will now number less than 50,000.
There is no doubt that U.S. forces are overstretched, but they are also at war, and it is a war they could still lose. It’s not cheap or easy to keep the Afghan government afloat. But it would be a lot more expensive to see it go under.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.