The revised operational plan for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- known as "Stage 3 expansion" -- provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country.
The next stage of this plan will be the expansion of ISAF in 2006 to six southern and central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul. As part of the expansion, ISAF's strength -- which presently is about 9,000 troops from 26 NATO and 10 non-NATO countries -- is expected to increase to 16,000, with most of the additional forces coming from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Thus far NATO does not have pledges for upward of 7,000 additional troops that are needed for its planned expansion of ISAF next year. Moreover, even among the three NATO member states promising to share the main burden of providing the additional troops, there are concerns about the rules of conduct that could create obstacles for some to send troops or hamper operational procedures.
In the Netherlands, for example, there is growing concern about the fate of captives once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, which must happen within 96 hours, according to NATO rules. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly addressed these concerns, promising that detainees handed over to the Afghan government will be treated humanely, the concerns of some important Dutch lawmakers remain unanswered.
According to information provided by NATO, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) "will continue to be at the leading edge" of the organization's efforts in Afghanistan and as part of the Stage 3 expansion four PRTs in Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, which are currently under U.S. command, will become NATO's responsibility.
Militarily, ISAF is mandated to conduct "stability and security operations" in coordination with Afghan national security forces and to provide support to Afghan government programs to "disarm illegally armed groups." However, it is not clear whether ISAF is authorized to use force if such an approach is adopted by Kabul.
NATO clearly has decided to steer ISAF away from active counternarcotics operations such as poppy eradication, destruction of drug-processing facilities, and military action against drug traffickers or producers.
The long-standing U.S. hope to combine the commands of ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition forces known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was not accepted by NATO, as major member states such as France and Germany objected.
According to information provided by NATO, ISAF and OEF "will continue to have separate mandates and missions. ISAF will continue to focus on its stabilization and security mission, while OEF will continue to carry out its counterterrorism mission."
The Afghan government, including Karzai, has welcomed NATO's decision to expand the ISAF mandate. Privately, however, Afghan officials have expressed two concerns. First, there is unease that the expansion of ISAF is a prelude to a lessening of OEF military involvement, especially that of the United States. Second, some Afghan officials are not sure about ISAF's ability and willingness to confront the increasingly violent armed opposition and their terrorist allies, which are active in southern Afghanistan.
Beyond these concerns, there remains the potential for the emergence of operational difficulties arising from the two-command structure between ISAF and OEF in restive provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, where the neo-Taliban and their allies are particularly active and where both forces will now be operating.
Also, there is growing evidence that the Afghan opposition and the narcotics industries are engaged in a mutually beneficial, though perhaps not always planned, cooperation. Thus NATO's decision to sidestep the narcotics problem may in fact hamper counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.