PRAGUE, July 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's move into southern Afghanistan was initially seen as a way to provide security in several provinces so that U.S.-led coalition troops could focus on operations elsewhere in the country.
Earlier this year, some NATO officials even spoke of NATO troops in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force as "peacekeepers." But that was before the escalation of violence by Taliban fighters and their supporters in southern Afghanistan to the worst level since 2001.
NATO To Go Everywhere
NATO spokesman James Appathurai says the U.S.-led coalition forces will continue combat missions in southern Afghanistan even after NATO takes over command in that area around the end of this month.
"The coalition will still be present in the east," he said. "But it will also be able to go -- and will go -- where it needs to go throughout the country, as it is currently doing, including into the area under the responsibility of NATO-ISAF, to conduct targeted intelligence-driven operations against terrorist leadership. They have a specific counterterror mission which they will continue to carry out. The two commanders [of NATO-ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition] are in full and regular contact."
Indeed, the rules of engagement for NATO troops in Afghanistan have been expanded dramatically beyond those of a peacekeeping mission. Appathurai says NATO action will be "robust." And he notes that NATO commanders have the authority to order preemptive strikes if they deem it necessary.
"NATO forces -- and that is in the south as well as everywhere else -- will have a mission to extend the authority of the Afghan government [and] to provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams," Appathurai said. "But they will have the right and the responsibility to protect that mission. And that means if they need to fight to protect themselves [and] if they need to fight to extend the authority of the Afghan government, they will do it. They have the right to do it and will do it. That includes the right, and indeed if the commander deems it appropriate, the responsibility to take preemptive action. So you will see very robust action by NATO-ISAF in the field."
Some experts say NATO is now announcing more flexible rules of engagement because the Taliban is stronger than the alliance thought it would be when planning for the move into southern Afghanistan began -- and stronger than U.S. or NATO military officials have been willing to admit.
How Strong Is The Taliban?
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," believes the Taliban are much stronger than military officials report.
"It seems there [are] two wars going on," Rashid said. "There's a war being waged by the U.S.-NATO forces, who speak of killing dozens if not hundreds of Taliban almost every day. And there is another war going on -- which seems that the Taliban are capturing towns, they're infiltrating into major cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of [the southern province of] Helmand."
NATO troops -- consisting mainly of British, Canadian, and Dutch soldiers -- have been pushing into parts of the south where no foreign or Afghan government troops have been. Analyst Hamidullah Tarzi, a former Afghan cabinet minister, says the expansion of foreign forces has exacerbated the security situation.
"I think the increase of foreign troops in the south, and mistakes in their military operations in the south and southeast have caused insecurity in the country, and made the situation worse," Tarzi said.
Rahimullah Yusafzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on Afghan affairs, says the Taliban continues to operate freely in parts of southern provinces like Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Helmand.
Yusafzai stresses that the Taliban were never completely defeated in Afghanistan. Rather, U.S. air strikes forced the Taliban regime out of cities like Kabul.
Building The Afghan National Army
"The Taliban could not fight the Americans and their allies, so they just retreated into the countryside," Yusafzai said. "They melted into the Afghan villages and now they are back with a vengeance. Because I think they were biding their time. And now they feel that the situation is conducive to start fighting -- and they have done it in a big way now."
NATO spokesman Appathurai says the way to bring security to the most volatile parts of Afghanistan is by training and strengthening the Afghan National Army.
"Afghan army training is proceeding well with over 28,000 Afghan troops in the field," he said. "But while the Afghan National Army is generally performing credibly -- and is popular with the population -- it lacks some equipment. NATO nations are now looking at the question of whether we can provide, as an alliance, more equipment to the Afghan National Army. [It is] critical to the expansion -- the extension -- of central government influence in Afghanistan. [The army is] the backbone to the overall effort to control and eventually defeat those who are trying to prevent the extension of the Afghan government across the country."
Appathurai says security also would be bolstered by greater efforts to train the Afghan National Police.
"The Afghan National Police lags behind the Afghan National Army," Appathurai said. "Much more needs to be done to support the development of the Afghan National Police. They are a critical pillar of the Afghan security establishment. While NATO does not have a lead role in [the] training of police, other organizations -- for example, the European Union -- could step up the effort and provide more."
The NATO spokesman says reconstruction efforts need to move forward and corrupt Afghan officials need to be removed from government posts as soon as possible. He says NATO already is encouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to take immediate steps to root out corruption and improve governance in Afghanistan.
(RFE/RL's correspondent in Brussels, Ahto Lobjakas, contributed to this report.)