Afghanistan: It’s not about NATO

Somewhere on the road to Kandahar it has apparently been revealed to NATO that its future is inextricably linked to success or failure in Afghanistan – begging the question of whose definition of success applies.[i]

If NATO’s political and military leaders choose to characterize their alliance as so fragile and wanting in purpose that its fate is now in the hands of peasant fighters in Afghanistan – even though NATO accounts for two-thirds of all global military spending and even more of its military capacity[ii] – that’s up to them, but perhaps it’s time to get a grip.

Contrary to current rhetoric, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on which Canada serves in Afghanistan is not a “NATO mission.” Indeed, the American led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) force, still present and active in Afghanistan , is arguably much closer to being a NATO mission. The OEF force was mounted in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US , based on the UN Charter’s self-defence provision (Article 51), and NATO in turn invoked its Article V on grounds that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on them all.

ISAF is something entirely different, and it is definitely not meant to be the NATO alliance in self-defence mode. Established by the Security Council at the request of the 2001 Bonn Conference and the interim government it created, ISAF has the specific task of assisting the Afghan government in maintaining security – i.e. to provide for the safety and protection of the people of Afghanistan, as well as the UN and other agencies working there.[iii]

It was initially managed by the UK, and rotated to Italy and Germany until August 2003 when NATO took over.[iv] When ISAF was under UK command it was not regarded as a “UK operation” and now that it is under NATO command it is not a “NATO operation” – in both cases it was and is an international force, mandated by the UN, that involves troops from countries within and beyond NATO (of 37 troop contributing countries, 11 are from non-NATO countries).

The foreign troops of ISAF are not there under NATO Article V obligations of mutual defence, which means that the obligation on NATO countries to contribute to ISAF is no greater than the obligation on any other country.

The problem with the repeated insistence that ISAF is a NATO operation on which the future of NATO depends is that the focus inevitably becomes the interests and well-being of NATO rather than the interests and well-being of the people of Afghanistan – and to equate the two is the worst form of Western hubris and triumphalism.

In fact, it is NATO’s self-definition of success – that is, the military defeat of the opponents of the Government of Afghanistan and ISAF – that now drives the push to concentrate combat forces in the south and to bolster the firepower of those forces with more tanks and tracked armored vehicles[v] and more of the air strikes that inevitably produce civilian casualties.

NATO planners and strategists, unfortunately, are unlikely to follow the advice that the Washington Post says has found its way into the draft of a new US Army/Marine Corps Field Manual on counterinsurgency: “The best weapons for counterinsurgency do not shoot bullets. The more force you use, the less effective you are.”[vi]

While NATO steers ISAF increasingly towards shooting more bullets to militarily defeat the insurgency, that insurgency in fact grows. At the Latvian NATO summit, there was even pressure to pull ISAF contingents away from important security patrols in some of the relatively stable regions of the north, risking the subsequent spread of the insurgency to the communities that would be then left exposed.

UK journalist Kate Clark, in a new television documentary and a related account in the New Statesman, emphasizes the risk. Many of the grievances that fuel the insurgency in the south, she reports, are also present in the north. She quotes a northern Afghan aid worker as saying: “If we had a resistance movement to join, there’d be an insurgency here as well.”[vii]

The International Crisis Group elaborates on the grievances behind the insurgency in the south: notably, p olitical disenfranchisement which favors one group over others and excludes others; resource conflicts, particularly over land and water; corruption; lack of economic opportunities; and abuse by local and international security forces.[viii]

In other words, the insurgents which are routinely referred to as “the Taliban” are driven less by irrational fanaticism than by very basic and familiar complaints. And they are grievances that are all amenable to being addressed through negotiation, political inclusion, and changed governmental and ISAF practices.

But as long as the grievances are ignored in the hope that NATO will be able to claim success in militarily defeating the aggrieved, many Afghans will continue to transfer their allegiance away from a Government and international security assistance force that have not lived up to expectations and toward the very groups the international forces are fighting.

ISAF’s focus, at NATO’s urging, on expanding and trying to redeploy military forces, rather than on radically expanding attention to real grievances (through economic initiatives, improved social services like health care and education, and attention to corruption and to human rights violations by security forces), appears to have a lot more to do with NATO’s perceived need for a military success to cement its future than it does with the needs of Afghans.

What’s at stake is the future of Afghanistan. It’s not about NATO.


[i]“All NATO’s members need to bear the brunt,” The Globe and Mail, lead editorial, November 29, 2006. On the same day, the paper’s columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, argued that “NATO’s very survival hinges on the Afghan mission.”

[ii]Military Balance, 2006(The International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, UK) shows 2004 military spending for NATO to be $707 billion out of a world total of $1,119 billion (US dollars), p. 403.

[iii]Security Council Resolution 1386 (December 20, 2001).

[iv]See UN Secretary-General’s report A/60/224-S/2005/525, para. 68.

[v][v]David Pugliese, “Armoured vehicles headed to Afghanistan ,” CanWest News Service, November 25, 2006 (http://www.canada.com/components /print.aspx?id=1cef8bf3-18b2-4f06-b1f9-5031e1dba…).

[vi]T.X. Hammes, “The Way to Win a Guerilla War,” Washington Post, November 26, 2006 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/24/AR200611……).

[vii]Kate Clark, “The real Afghan war,” The New Statesman, November 27, 2006.

[viii]“Countering Afghanistan ‘s Insurgency: No Quick Fixes,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 123, November 2, 2006 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4485&1=1).

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