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NATO: Keeping the Peace in Afghanistan

Author: Sharon Otterman
October 17, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Can NATO keep the peace in Afghanistan?

The United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed October 13 to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to expand its Afghanistan peacekeeping mission beyond the capital city of Kabul. NATO's involvement is an important step in the evolution of the transatlantic alliance--created after World War II to counterbalance the Soviet threat--and will help increase security in Afghanistan in the future, experts say. But the move's immediate implications are less clear. Many experts warn that it will be months before there is a significant expansion in the number of peacekeeping troops.

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What's the current status of peacekeeping in Afghanistan?

The U.N.-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has about 5,500 troops based in and around Kabul. Most of the peacekeepers are Germans and Canadians; about 90 percent come from the NATO's 19 member nations. NATO took control of ISAF on August 11, 2003, ending an unwieldy system of rotating command among individual nations.

The peacekeepers support and protect the transitional Afghan government, headed by Hamid Karzai. Outside of the capital, however, the reach of the central government is limited. Much of Afghanistan remains controlled by regional militia, and the security situation in some provinces has deteriorated over the past year. The biggest threat comes from increasing attacks by Taliban gunmen.

There are also some 11,500 U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan hunting down terrorists, but for the most part they do not get involved in peacekeeping.

Which U.S. forces participate in peacekeeping?

Americans run two of four Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) deployed in Afghan cities. These small, civilian-military units (in general, made up of 100 to 200 personnel) play a limited role in reconstruction and provide security for international aid groups. The United States has encouraged other nations to take over command of these teams. One of the factors behind the expansion of ISAF was to help pave the way for other nations--particularly Germany--to lead PRTs throughout Afghanistan.

What new NATO deployments are on the horizon?

The German government has indicated it wants to send approximately 450 peacekeepers to the city of Kunduz, approximately 150 miles north of Kabul. NATO is currently assessing conditions in the rest of Afghanistan for additional troop deployments, but no other NATO nations have yet stepped forward to offer more peacekeepers. Because of the slow pace of this process, some Afghanistan-watchers do not expect to see a significant increase in ISAF forces until next spring. Afghanistan's first national election is scheduled for June 2004.

Why was Kunduz selected as the first city for ISAF expansion?

There is already an American-run PRT in Kunduz, and the security situation is more stable than in other parts of the country. NATO officials say more detailed preparations are required before ISAF deploys into more dangerous areas, particularly the south and east, where there has been a resurgence of Taliban-related violence. Of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, 16 have high-risk areas for international assistance workers and five have seen serious factional fighting, says Kevin Henry, the advocacy director of CARE. Only eight provinces, including Kunduz, are relatively secure.

What does ISAF expansion mean for NATO?

NATO's willingness to command ISAF marks a milestone in the history of the 54-year-old military alliance: its first mission outside of the Europe-Atlantic area. With the Soviet threat a thing of the past and Europe largely at peace, NATO is searching for ways to remain relevant in the post-Cold War world, experts say. Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, NATO members have determined that the alliance should evolve into a more flexible organization with the capacity to intervene in small conflicts, fight terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, conduct peacekeeping operations, and support humanitarian missions inside and outside of Europe. NATO's command of ongoing peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo are part of this transformation. And in October 2003, NATO announced the creation of its first "rapid reaction" force.

What is the new NATO force?

Launched on October 15, the NATO Response Force (NPF) is a 9,000-member expeditionary fighting unit that can deploy on short notice anywhere in the world. Essentially, it is a pool of elite infantry and other forces from NATO nations trained to deploy and work as a team. So far, Spain is providing the largest share of NPF troops--2,200--plus ships, planes, and helicopters. The United States is contributing 300 troops. There will also be specialists in handling nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The NPF will eventually number 20,000 soldiers, according to current plans. While its exact rules of engagement are still being determined, experts say it will likely deploy only with U.N. Security Council backing.

Is NATO involved in Iraq?

Yes, but indirectly. It is providing logistical and technical support to the Poles, who are leading a multinational military force stationed south of Baghdad. Spain will take over command from Poland, with NATO support, in 2004. Some former U.S. generals and other experts are calling for NATO to become the umbrella organization for peacekeepers there, in an effort to further internationalize the occupation force. But there has not been "a request yet for NATO to be formally involved" in Iraq, outgoing NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said October 9. Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will take over as NATO secretary general in December.

Does NATO have enough resources to take on all these new missions?

Not without difficulty, many experts say. Most NATO nations have small military budgets--and in many cases military spending is declining, says Michael Peters, an expert on NATO affairs and executive vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Only a handful of NATO nations--France, Germany, Britain, Turkey, and Poland--have the capacity to field significant numbers of troops, and cash-strapped Poland and Turkey require financial assistance to do so, Peters says. Ongoing Balkans deployments involving some 40,000 personnel already strain the capacity of some NATO members. NATO's focus for now is getting Afghanistan "absolutely right" because it's somewhere we cannot possibly fail before we start looking at other elements," Robertson said October 9.

Is there resistance to NATO transformation?

There is an ongoing debate within Europe over the level of resources that should be devoted to the European Union's new Rapid Reaction Force, a 60,000-member military unit that may act independently of NATO and the United States. Support for making the force a centerpiece of E.U. security policy remains limited, but that could change if Britain--NATO's strongest supporter in Europe--decides to throw its weight behind the effort, Peters says. The unit has already taken on two small peacekeeping missions: it currently commands the 400-member peacekeeping force in Macedonia, and it led a peacekeeping mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo between June and September 2003.

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