NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is a UN-mandated force charged with maintaining security during the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The force grew out of an international conference in Bonn December 2001, after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban in the fall of 2001. The force is jointly operated by NATO and Allied Joint Force Command out of Brussels, and includes troops from thirty-six NATO countries, nine partner countries, and two countries that are neither. The NATO force currently numbers about 8,000 troops, who work in conjunction with the roughly 15,000 U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan. The U.S. forces currently have primary responsibility for searching for Taliban members and fighting insurgents in the restive southern provinces of Afghanistan; however, this summer, NATO will begin to expand its mission into the south. Lt. Gen. David Barno, the former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, speaks to CFR.org’s Esther Pan about the challenges the troops will face and the implications for the alliance.
When is the NATO mission scheduled to expand to the south?
I think it is presently under way in terms of the forces moving into that part of the country. The exact date of the handover to NATO, I think, has not been fixed determinately, but I am not one hundred percent certain as to that.
What’s happening with the American troops? Are they withdrawing entirely or will they still be there in a support role?
There will be a combination, I think, of each. Troops will be repositioning in the different areas, but there will also be U.S. forces that are part of that overall NATO operation down there, particularly operating out of Kandahar.
Will the new NATO mission consist mostly of PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams], or will it also include combat troops?
Both, as I understand it. The combat troops will be mixed throughout for support and combatant forces down there. The British, of course, are down in that area now, in Helmand province, with what will become a significant force as it continues to grow. Canadians are down there; they have the PRT in Kandahar, and they’ll have some combat forces as well. So it will be a mixture, I think, and a combination of different-type forces.
Are the troops from those other countries—the British, the Canadians, the Dutch—are they equipped, and are they capable of doing the same kind of military operations that U.S. troops were doing in the south?
I actually got to go up and visit the Canadian brigade leadership in Canada, back several months before they deployed, and I was very impressed with the preparations they had done in terms of their training and all of their equipment. I think they will be in very good shape to be able to perform any kind of missions they are called on to do.
Does it seem like the Taliban’s spring offensive is particularly targeting the south just as this transition is happening?
I think the Taliban are keenly aware that transitions are always opportunities for seams to develop. I also know that coalition forces—the United States and NATO—are working very hard to make sure there are no seams as they do this transition. This is part of the give-and-take of combat operations. I think the Taliban will ultimately be unsuccessful in exploiting this transition period.
There is some talk also that the Taliban is trying to inflict casualties on the members of the NATO mission in order to weaken the political will in, for example, the Netherlands or Canada. Do you think that strategy would have an effect?
I think the Taliban is going to try and use casualties on the battlefield to create political effects at home. They look at using tactical events out there to create strategic effects in the home countries of all the nations involved in the fight over there. That doesn’t surprise me, and they will use the media to help transmit some of those messages. But I think, ultimately, that will be ineffective. The willpower of the leadership of the countries involved will be sufficient to withstand that.
From your experience commanding the troops, what would you say were your biggest challenges, militarily speaking, in Afghanistan?
I think part of the biggest challenge was to try and look at the overall campaign there comprehensively, to make sure that we took into account and helped support efforts that were going on in the reconstruction arena, in the development of political institutions, and helping to assist in rebuilding the economy there—looking at it holistically as opposed to taking a military-centric outlook. I think we had good success in helping all the other players move forward collectively to create good effects during the time I was there.
How would you assess the progress of training for both the Afghan military and the Afghan police?
In the time I was there, I thought the military training with the Afghan National Army went exceptionally well. They were a very well-disciplined, very aggressive force that was highly skilled and had great respect from the American units they worked with. And American units all wanted to be out in the field with the Afghan National Army, which speaks volumes for the ANA. On the police side, we were going through a transition, from some limited oversight of the police training program to now a much more robust oversight of that program, in part through the coalition military. So I think that program has gone through a reinvigoration and realignment that is starting to pay good dividends out there now.
And what’s the security situation in the country? We hear a lot about Kabul and the areas where NATO is active or the PRTs are active, but it seems like wide sections of the country are still not secure, or are controlled by warlords or militias.
I don’t take that approach. My sense, certainly while I was there, is that the northern tier of the country was relatively peaceful. There was very little in the way of security threats there, or regular violence. The Afghan local governments had a pretty good degree of control and support in those areas. I think that it’s difficult to look at the reporting in the newspapers and the media and determine the exact security situation. But I think, clearly, the Taliban are most active in the south and the east. There is a very limited security threat throughout the rest of the country.
Did you encounter the phenomenon of the Taliban using Pakistan as a staging ground from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan?
The border area itself, I think, is a difficult area and terrain. It’s very inaccessible. The Pakistanis, whom I spent a lot of time interacting with, never had regular troops out into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, dating from when Pakistan was formed until just two years ago. So their ability to extend the rule of law into those areas and actually have a presence out there was very minimal until 2004. Now they’ve got over 70,000 military and border forces out there. They are taking an active role, but there are some real challenges in dealing with the very rugged terrain out there and very difficult operating environment.
And did you find that your soldiers operating in the south were being increasingly exposed to suicide attacks and other tactics that were not as commonly used in Afghanistan in the past?
During my tenure—I left about a year ago—suicide attacks were extraordinarily rare. I think during all of 2004 we might have had four or five, and those numbers have gone up considerably in the last year. In terms of improvised explosive devices [IEDs], again, a limited number of those. [They were] somewhat uncommon, and there’s clearly been an uptick in those in the last year as well. I think the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists there have looked for ways to create greater casualties with a limited investment on their part in the way of people—who they do not put any value on—and in the way of limited technology. And that’s part of what we are seeing there.
Is there an effective way to combat that kind of attack?
Part of it is good tactics, techniques, and procedures. Our units are very talented at adapting their approaches as the enemy continues to come up with new offensive techniques. We have tremendous confidence, in fact, in our military units who are there to be able to counter those efforts as they continue to evolve, and we’ve seen a pretty good degree of success with that over time.
Is the NATO operation getting the level of political and also material support that it needs from the U.S. side? I’m hearing reports that there aren’t enough helicopters, there aren’t enough ways to move troops around.
I am not aware of those specific shortcomings, but I am not over there either. I think I am 100 percent certain that 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.
And this is quite a sea change for NATO, isn’t it, the first time that they have taken over this kind of mission. Do you feel that it marks a change in the relationship between the United States and NATO?
I don’t think it’s a change so much as it is a rebirth of the great relationship the United States had within NATO during the Cold War. This is, perhaps, a new evolution of NATO—a 21st century evolution. They are out in an extraordinarily important part of the world. The NATO secretary-general said, "This is NATO’s number one priority," and they are absolutely committed to making it successful. I know the United States is going to play a major role within NATO as this transition continues to unfold.