NATO’s takeover Monday of security forces keeping the peace in Afghanistan heralds the 19-member alliance’s first deployment ever outside Europe in its 54-year history. For Afghanistan, a NATO command could lay the groundwork for a needed expansion of the security forces into the country’s unruly provinces. For the alliance, the Afghan mission presents an opportunity to broaden its Eurocentric scope.
A NATO command consisting of some 60 officers formally opened operations in Kabul on Monday, replacing Germany and the Netherlands as the latest nations to lead the 5,000-strong International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, set up to police the Afghan capital after the overthrow of the Taliban.
On the face of it, not much will change. Most of the 30 countries that have pledged troops to ISAF will keep them under the new NATO command, with small adjustments in numbers. And NATO will continue to operate troops under a U.N. mandate, which expires in June 2004.
Yet there are broader implications for NATO engaging in a military operation in Central Asia. And the Afghan government and NATO commanders see the involvement of the alliance, formed in 1949 to counter the Soviet push into Eastern Europe, as mutually beneficial.
“It’s a further extension of NATO’s reach from the normal confines of Western Europe,” said retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe and former head of NATO’s 39-nation peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “It shows the increasing relevance of NATO as adjunct of U.S. policy and strategic interests for the future.”
NATO, by its own admission, is stepping into Afghanistan’s landmine of problems. Pledged foreign aid has been slow to materialize, as President Hamid Karzai grapples with warlords-turned-governors vying for control of Afghanistan’s far-flung provinces and paying little heed to Kabul.
In terms of landmass, security risks and humanitarian catastrophe, Afghanistan is unparalleled.
“It’s going to be dangerous; it’s going to be difficult,” said Bruce Jackson, a former Pentagon official and co-founder of the U.S. Committee on NATO, a Washington-based pro-expansion think tank. “People are going to look at the mission for lessons on whether NATO is up to the challenge of political resolve and military capability.”
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson reflected recently that the mission “may well be one of the toughest we have taken on.”
NATO comes to the Afghanistan with significant peacekeeping experience in the Balkans, where the alliance has deployed thousands of troops for years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO went through a period of soul-searching, having lost its traditional enemy. Peacekeeping, at which the organization has proven capable, provided a new outlet that met NATO’s security goals. After the 2001 attacks on the United States, experts have watched how the alliance will react to the post-9/11 world.
“If NATO makes a positive contribution to nation-building in Afghanistan, it will fulfill a counter terror function and expand its purview to other areas,” said Jonathan Stevenson, a defense specialist with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
At the helm of Afghanistan, NATO commanders will quickly learn the political issue of the day: the expansion of international security forces, which has been called for by the Afghan government and relief officials who say the country can scarcely rebuild itself when wayward warlords are raising countryside armies of their own.
Defense expert Stevenson says a force like NATO, unlike a single nation at the helm of the security forces, could be up for the job.
“NATO can draw on pre-assigned assets from the U.S. and European militaries. NATO could make the expansion more fluid,” he said.
The expansion of the security forces won’t come without a Security Council mandate, something the United States has resisted. Before NATO arrived, only Washington’s military assets, largely pledged to Iraq, could have carried off a countrywide operation.
“NATO puts in place an infrastructure that could conceivably expand ISAF. It’s a positive sign,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi of Human Rights Watch, among many organizations advocating an enlarged security force in Afghanistan.
released late last month warned that “Afghanistan’s window of opportunity is closing fast,” citing murder, extortion, intimidation, rape, kidnapping and robbery committed by Afghan warlords who have nominally pledged loyalty to the central government.
Visiting Washington last month, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said that an increased multi-national security presence could lead the country down the road to democracy and prosperity. The other option, Abdullah said, is “a failed state, and a really failed state, ruled by drug lords, by warlords, by the forces of darkness, unstabilized (sic) by terrorism once again; as a result of it, our whole region unstabilized.”
NATO'S new role
With President Karzai attempting to draft an Afghan constitution by October, and hold national elections eight months later, NATO’s mission comes at a crucial time.
In his final press conference last week, the outgoing German ISAF commander, Lt.-Gen. Norbert Van Heyst said “up to 10,000 additional troops” would be needed to expand ISAF to the provinces. He added: “I don’t see anybody who is willing to provide these soldiers.”
One alternative, currently making its debut under the present ISAF mandate, is a greater role for Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The PRTs comprise of groups of 50-100 civilians and soldiers deployed for humanitarian and security work in key provincial centers.
For now, U.S. officials say, there have been no substantive discussions about expanding ISAF beyond Kabul, but one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said once NATO is on the ground, “that could happen. It would require a lot more forces from NATO countries, as well as a new U.N. mandate,” said the official. “The United States is not opposed to that.”
If the political will can be found for more security forces in Afghanistan, retired general Meigs says NATO should have no problem filling the security void.
“The advantage of NATO is it makes it easier to get European Union aid,” he said. “And having the EU actively support the aid that is needed is important. Almost all the NATO countries are EU countries, and they will lobby the EU to support their troops down range.”
(Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international correspondent. NBC’s Tammy Kupperman at the State Department contributed to this report.)