Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation has led to further postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections. Initially scheduled for June 2004 (when President Hamid Karzai’s term of office expired), both sets of elections were postponed to September, as officially announced during the June NATO summit in Istanbul, where the alliance decided to contribute to the elections’ success by sending more troops to Afghanistan. Within days of that summit, however, Afghanistan’s elections were again postponed, as well as decoupled: the presidential election is to be held in October, and the parliamentary elections in April or May 2005.
NATO believes that the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army (both of which are only nascent) needs outside help to provide security for voter registration, candidates, voters, and polling stations. This would temporarily add to the role already assumed by NATO in Afghanistan — a role that vaguely resembles nation-building, unnecessarily raising questions about NATO’s relevance.
The alliance currently deploys 6,500 troops in Afghanistan as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has operated since December 2001, and under NATO command since August 2003. NATO member countries rotate as “lead nations,” taking control of ISAF at six-month intervals, under command from NATO Headquarters and political guidance from the North Atlantic Council. Troop deployment is confined to Kabul, the nearby Baghram airport, and six Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north of the country, where the situation is more stable, compared to other parts of Afghanistan.
PRTs are partly civilian, partly military undertakings; their military element usually consists of two or three ISAF companies per PRT. Designed to assist civilian reconstruction projects, to work with international humanitarian organizations, and to bring central government representatives to the provinces, PRTs are only marginally useful because they are small and isolated.
Overall, ISAF is too small, too poorly equipped, and too ridden by operating restrictions to make a serious difference in the security picture. Most NATO countries are reluctant to provide troops in any significant numbers. At the moment, the 6,500 troop deployment consists of contributions from some 35 member and partner countries, making up a force that is paradoxically both small and heterogeneous. ISAF lacks real combat capabilities, and most of its contributing countries have actually barred their troops from engaging in combat or other life-threatening situations (or even from seriously risking their few helicopters). These restrictions, known as “national caveats” and stemming from domestic politics in the troop-contributing countries, weakened the allied mission from the outset.
For its own protection in a military emergency, as well as for air support, extrication, and other key functions, ISAF depends on U.S. forces, which operate in other parts of Afghanistan. Those U.S. forces are themselves overstretched by considerably greater challenges than is the case in ISAF’s area. Thus, NATO has yet to prove that it can be an asset, rather than a liability, to U.S. forces in coalition operations.
Militarily in the shadow of the United States, NATO’s mission operates in a political context that is also beyond its control. Thus, ISAF is unable to deal either with warlordism or with the drug-based economy that has turned Afghanistan into the world’s leading opium and heroin producer. Warlordism and the narco-economy are antithetical to ISAF’s goals of providing security and assisting in civilian reconstruction. Warlord forces vastly outnumber the ISAF. In addition, NATO has ruled out any involvement in anti-drug activities, such as setting poppy fields on fire from the air. At the Istanbul summit, the alliance decided to “leave it up to regional leaders” to provide security in each of their regions in Afghanistan. This decision reflects the failure to disarm or co-opt the warlords, a failure stemming in part from the insufficiency of NATO deployment.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer complains constantly and publicly that he must “go around with the begging bowl” to member nations in search of a few infantry companies, transport aircraft, helicopters, or medical facilities for ISAF. Compounding force-generation problems, ISAF must undertake an arduous search for a lead nation every six months. In August 2004, the ISAF command is scheduled for handover to the Eurocorps, which, strictly speaking, is not a NATO agency, though it consists of member countries Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain.
NATO currently seeks to expand ISAF to 10,000 troops, adding four new PRTs to its existing six. A decision along these lines was initially taken in October 2003, but was not fulfilled. The recent NATO summit solemnly committed the alliance to this increase in ISAF. However, in the summit’s aftermath, some reservations and qualifications have emerged that seem to be diluting that goal. There is no timetable or resource allocation for establishing the new PRTs (only one of them has raised the flag thus far). The troop-contributing nations have yet to be identified. Only part of the 3,500-troop increment will be deployed to Afghanistan, while another part will remain on standby in Europe. Of the extra troops to be actually deployed to Afghanistan, most will apparently stay there only through the presidential election. The integrity of the electoral process seems far from assured at this stage. This is not the fault of NATO, but neither would the alliance wish to become a bystander to a flawed or questionable election in its area of responsibility.