During the NATO Summit of November 2002, Afghanistan was not a top priority as the euphoria of the accession of seven new members took center stage. Almost two years later, an alliance damaged by deep disagreements between some of its members on military action in Iraq has placed its commitment to Afghanistan as a major agenda item at its summit in Istanbul later this month.
However, placing Afghanistan atop its agenda does not, unfortunately, mean that NATO is going to give it a pat on the back, as it did in Prague, for a job well done.
Ever since NATO took the vague decision during the Prague Summit to commit the alliance to "provide support in selected areas" to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the world's strongest military alliance has only taken a few haphazard and ill-coordinated steps that at times have contradicted NATO's own statements.
Stumbling Into Afghanistan
A day after the terrorist attacks against the United States, for the first time ever NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty, which states that an armed attack against one or more NATO member states is considered an attack against all of them. While the gesture was historic, what followed in Afghanistan was not an alliance-wide involvement in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism but help from individual NATO members in the military campaign in Afghanistan. Whether the alliance would have actually invoked Article 5 and participated in the Afghan campaign as one force is open to debate.
What followed regarding Afghanistan was that individual member states of NATO requested more help from the alliance when they assumed more responsibility in maintaining ISAF, which until January 2004 had an area of responsibility limited to only the Afghan capital of Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2002).
At the Prague Summit, Germany and the Netherlands, perhaps backed by the U.S. and some other NATO members, requested that the alliance become officially involved with ISAF. Seeking NATO's official involvement in the ISAF was not a new issue: the United Kingdom, which led the force from its inception until June 2002, reportedly explored a peacekeeping role for NATO following the end of ISAF's initial six-month mandate. However, Turkey agreed to lead the force for its second six-month mandate.
NATO welcomed the "willingness of Germany and the Netherlands jointly to succeed them" and "agreed to provide support in selected areas for the next ISAF lead nations, showing our continued commitment." But NATO leaders, taking a line from the mandate of ISAF, stressed the unrealistic demand that "the responsibility for providing security and law and order throughout Afghanistan resides with the Afghans themselves."
On one hand, the vagueness of the statement that NATO will provide "support in selected areas" made the commitment of the alliance very vague, which can now, in retrospect, be associated with the disagreements within NATO as to the nature of support the alliance is prepared to give to ISAF. On the other hand, the "selected areas" further diluted the NATO commitment.
In August 2003, NATO took over command and coordination of ISAF -- marking the first mission for the alliance outside the Euro-Atlantic zone. At the 11 August ceremonies in Kabul, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo declared that ISAF's "name and mission will not change," but said "what will change as of today is the level of commitment and capability NATO provides." From the beginning, however, the alliance wavered on the question of expanding ISAF beyond Kabul, something that the Afghan Transitional Administration and the United Nations had repeatedly requested. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson indicated that the alliance needed some months to ponder expanding the ISAF mandate to other parts of Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 August 2003).
After months of debate and preparation, in October a small team of German troops arrived in the northern Afghan town of Konduz to lay the groundwork for the expansion of ISAF under the leadership of NATO and to take over a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) from the United States. The Germans said that they would cooperate with local security forces "to ensure that there is a safe environment for Afghans, United Nations staff, and members of other international organizations to do reconstruction work and provide humanitarian aid" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 October 2003). At the time, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that the alliance would participate in increasing the number of PRTs in the country and would assume command of missions in the southern parts of Afghanistan, where, unlike the relatively secure north, the situation was much more volatile.
Sidestepping The Drug Problem
Upon assuming command of the PRT in Konduz on 7 January (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004), NATO's personnel on the ground and some of the diplomats attached to the organization elsewhere consistently separated the alliances mission from one of Afghanistan's more pressing problems: the alarming increase in the cultivation of poppies and the production of heroin.
According to the estimates of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghan farmers produced 3,400 tons of opium in 2002 compared to 185 tons the preceding year -- an alarming increase. The numbers have continued to worsen. In 2003, a year in which three-quarters of the global opium supply originated in Afghanistan, production increased by another 6 percent to 3,600 tons. It is projected that cultivation will increase yet again in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004).
UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has asked for the resources to increase the number of similar operations and for the NATO-led ISAF to also be involved in combating drugs in Afghanistan. However, NATO has so far been reluctant to commit itself to tackling this issue. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has stated that counternarcotics operations were not the main responsibility of the NATO-led international force.
Some members of NATO are so keenly aware of the scourge of the drug trade that it is only delaying and even possibly destroying Afghanistan's chances of moving toward becoming a viable state. They are also aware that this problem has a direct effect on the security of the country and the security of the international troops as well. Bill Rammell, the United Kingdom's minister responsible for his country's role in the campaign against the drug trade, recently said: "Ninety-five percent of the heroin on British streets is from Afghanistan, so it really is one area where foreign policy coincides with domestic policy." The United Kingdom happens to be the lead nation in trying to curb Afghanistan's narcotics problem, but unfortunately views in London are not shared by other key NATO member states. Some European diplomats have even claimed that Afghanistan is not the origin of heroin on their streets, arguing rather that Europe gets its heroin from Columbia.
In November 2003, outgoing NATO Secretary-General Robertson said the alliance was "going to Afghanistan because" it did not want Afghanistan to come to Europe, "whether it be in terms of terrorism or drugs." It seems that once NATO actually went to Afghanistan, Robertson's message was lost in the political shuffle, giving the drug dealers and various warlords in Afghanistan the best hand in this dangerous game.
While NATO has been refusing to link combating drugs with its overall mission in Konduz, the accepted challenge of providing a safe environment for reconstruction work has not gone very well. On 10 June, unidentified assailants, purported to be neo-Taliban sympathizers, killed 11 Chinese construction workers in Konduz Province, only some 35 kilometers away from the headquarters of the NATO-led PRT in that province.
The Helicopter Fiasco
The case that, sadly, best illustrates the overall lack of commitment by some NATO members to take the alliance's mission in Afghanistan seriously has to do with the search to find three helicopters to support the expansion of ISAF to Konduz and for conducting the day-to-day functions of the mission in Kabul.
When NATO was preparing to assume command of the PRT in Konduz, Robertson was knocking on the doors of NATO members and even nonmembers such as Austria and Switzerland for three helicopters to enable the German team's deployment. After many declined, Turkey finally agreed to provide the helicopters.
It took direct involvement from three NATO members -- Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Turkey -- and seven months of haggling until the three Blackhawk helicopters were finally delivered to Afghanistan in May. To outside observers it is hard to believe that the world's strongest military alliance cannot produce three helicopters for its first "out of area" mission which de Hoop Scheffer has time and again referred to as the "primary focus" and "top priority" for the alliance. On paper, NATO has access to over 1,000 helicopters but, as the mission in Afghanistan is not an Article 5 mission, the request for the three helicopters was not considered an obligation. The lack of cooperation by a NATO member to the alliance's commitment in Afghanistan -- a relatively small operation -- has to be judged not in terms of capabilities, but rather in political commitment and understanding between alliance members, in which case Afghanistan needs to be placed atop the alliance's priority list.
According to a report in the "Financial Times," the helicopter fiasco and other shortcomings by NATO members involved in Afghanistan prompted the alliance in May to call for the launching of its first Operational Military Review since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, de Hoop Scheffer, while placing Afghanistan at the top of the agenda for NATO's upcoming summit in Istanbul, has warned that the mission is at a critical juncture.
NATO is not expected to withdraw from Afghanistan. That would not only be a victory for terrorism and criminality over the Western world's most formidable military structure, but also a fatal blow to an alliance still searching for its place. There certainly will be more talk and more promises regarding the Afghan mission during the Istanbul summit.
What NATO might also do is to rapidly deploy a few more missions outside Kabul specifically designed to bolster the UN-backed election campaign in Afghanistan. The new operations might provide a relatively safe testing ground for the nascent NATO Response Force. Between Istanbul and the Afghan elections, NATO can be expected to show its blue flag in Afghanistan and, if the elections are successful, i.e. no major violence occurs -- take the due credit. The main challenge for NATO and Afghanistan and other possible missions, for example in Iraq, is whether the alliance has the capacity and political will to take on long-term state and/or nation-building tasks, which in the case of Afghanistan includes such distasteful tasks as going after drug barons and spraying poppy crops.
Karzai may very well get his wish of more NATO help to ensure the security of his country's election process. Beyond that he may have to find other friends to fight against the long list of terrorists, drug pushers, and warlords.