The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has completed the deployment of additional forces in northern and western Afghanistan to support the holding of elections to the National Assembly and Provincial Councils. ISAF units are tasked to act as Election Support Forces in the run-up to the September 18 elections, during the balloting, and in the initial post-election period. Beyond that role and that period, NATO is now planning to expand ISAF’s operations from northern and western provinces into the south and east of the country, so as to support and — to some extent — relieve U.S. forces there.
The Election Support Forces (ESF) include land and air components allocated to the northern and western provinces. ESF’s mission is to assist Afghanistan’s fledgling police and army units in providing area security for the elections and to be ready to assist the central government’s forces in responding to local contingencies. ESF are authorized to conduct operations ranging from routine peace-support to quick-reaction combat missions. The units are typically deployed with ISAF’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north and west.
As during the presidential election of October 2004, ISAF is tasked — this time through the ESF — to contribute to the security of balloting and vote-counting procedures. The political responsibility for those procedures rests again with the Joint Election Management Body (JEMB), staffed by the Afghan government and the U.N.
The 2,000-strong troop increments just deployed have brought the total number of ISAF troops to more than 11,000 (more than compensating for the slight drop in ISAF numbers recorded earlier this year). While the ESF troops are deployed within Afghanistan, most of ESF’s air assets are being maintained in reserve at coalition bases in Central Asia.
ISAF and ESF are NATO operations with some contributions from non-NATO countries. ESF’s units are allocated as follows:
An Austrian infantry company is augmenting the German-led PRT in the northern town of Kunduz;
A battalion of Dutch Marines consisting of three infantry companies, engineers and support troops is reinforcing the northern area command based in Mazar-e-Sharif;
Two Italian infantry companies have been assigned, respectively, to the Italian PRT in Herat province and to the Lithuanian-led PRT in Ghor province, and three Italian helicopters added in Herat;
A Spanish battalion is committed to ISAF’s western area command based in Herat, where Spanish troops already form part of the PRT in that province;
Romania’s “Red Scorpions” rapid-deployment battalion, including three infantry companies, engineers, and support troops, is assigned to Kabul as a high-readiness reserve, to be deployed in emergencies at any location in ISAF’s area of operations. The Romanian battalion has its own airlift capability and is one of the very few allied units to have operated alongside U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. Army contributes one company to the Kabul-based ESF reserve force.
ESF’s air component consists of assets temporarily dedicated to it by individual countries within ISAF. Apart from helicopters, most of those assets are based in Central Asian countries due to insufficient airfield capacities in Afghanistan. Thus, France is making available its six Mirage fighter jets based in Dushanbe, two refueling aircraft based in Manas, and air operations staff in Kabul for ESF missions as needed. Germany and Sweden have committed their air transport assets based in Termez for ISAF in-theater airlift support.
The new ISAF commander since August, Italy’s Lt.-General Mauro del Vecchio, has taken over an operation expanded from northern into western Afghanistan. After the elections, ISAF is expected to begin preparations for expanding its mission into southern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have conducted Operation Enduring Freedom since late 2001 in a national capacity, outside NATO’s framework. Planning work now underway envisages a U.S. transfer of responsibility to NATO via ISAF in the southern part of Afghanistan in 2006. As part of that transfer, the United States would hand over its PRTs (as it did in western Afghanistan) to the NATO-led ISAF.
The United States currently deploys some 19,000 troops (slightly augmented for the election period) in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where armed Taliban holdouts are combat-active. In discussions at NATO, the Germans and French are said to oppose the involvement of ISAF in combat missions alongside the United States, insisting that NATO’s role should remain confined to peacekeeping as distinct from combat. At the moment, therefore, plans envisage assigning German and French troops to lead roles in the north and in Kabul, respectively, and the Italians to a lead role in the west of Afghanistan — i.e., in relatively peaceful areas.
The American and British are said to be slated for the lead role in the volatile south and east, respectively, under NATO command. This would entail merging the ISAF and Enduring Freedom operations, which have until now been run separately. The reconfiguration would signify a political boost for NATO, as well as bringing a degree of relief to an overextended U.S. military.
(NATO releases, August 25, 31, September 7; AP, September 2; BNS, September 5)