Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghanistan: NATO Takes Over ISAF Command Amid Calls For Expansion

NATO today took over command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan amid calls for the force to be expanded to areas outside of Kabul. RFE/RL examines what the change could mean for stabilization efforts across the country.

Prague, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO took over command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan today, marking the first time in the Atlantic alliance's 54-year history that it has headed a security operation outside of Europe.

The change in command comes amid calls from international aid agencies, as well as the Afghan government, for ISAF's geographic mandate to be expanded to include areas outside of Kabul province.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told participants at a handover ceremony today that bringing security to areas outside of Kabul Province is critical to conducting free and fair elections next year -- a key long-term goal of the 2001 Bonn Agreement and UN Security Council resolutions that created Afghanistan's Transitional Administration and the ISAF mission.

"We consider it very important that we be on time as far as elections are concerned -- June 2004. It's hard work. We need to focus," Abdullah said. "We need to work hard, as Afghans, the government and the people, and the international community, together, in order to be on time."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has argued that real peace will never come to Afghanistan until the ISAF moves to areas outside of Kabul to quell the violence perpetrated by factional warlord militias or other armed groups that control the countryside.

Those views are shared by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, who has frequently called on the ISAF to expand its operations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested that ISAF troops also be deployed in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad.

But NATO spokesman Mark Laity says the alliance needs several months to settle into the ISAF mission before it is willing to discuss expanded security operations outside the Kabul area.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson noted that it will take a new UN Security Council resolution, as well as agreement from the alliance's North Atlantic Council in Brussels, to expand ISAF into areas outside of Kabul Province. "NATO is not in a position to extend the ISAF mandate because it was laid down by the United Nations," he said. "And any decision to change the mandate -- for example, to take NATO outside of Kabul -- would require the United Nations to change its resolution. And it would require a further decision by the North Atlantic Council -- NATO's governing body."

General Jack Deverell is the commander-in-chief of NATO's Allied Forces North Europe, a regional headquarters of NATO that is tasked with operating the ISAF. He described in further detail the international agreements that would be necessary to deploy ISAF outside of Kabul. "The mandate is very specific and was laid down by the United Nations. And there will be no change to that mandate unless the nations and the North Atlantic Council decide that there will be changes, and what those changes will be, in agreement with the United Nations," he said.

However, Deverell said: "I think it is quite clear to everybody that Mr. Karzai will not be successful unless he is able to extend his influence beyond Kabul. And that will be achieved not just by the military but it will depend upon the increasing importance of the lines of development -- the humanitarian, the legal, the social, the political -- being successfully directed at the regions and in that, the military play their part. But we have to be imaginative in the way we do that. It is not just a matter of drawing bigger and bigger lines around Kabul and filling them with soldiers."

Deverell suggested one way of getting more foreign troops to areas outside of Kabul may be to have them participate in Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are being deployed by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan. But Deverell stressed that such efforts would constitute a coalition operation rather than work by the ISAF.

"The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are not part of the [UN] mandate and not part of a NATO operation. But they are a very interesting way of perhaps expanding the influence of Mr. Karzai into the regions and outside Kabul. The whole of the international community, I'm sure, will be very interested to see how they work and how effective they are -- and whether they really can enhance his influence in those regions," Deverell said.

There are indications that Germany may be considering such a role in northern Afghanistan. The German news agency dpa reported from Berlin yesterday that an agreement is near that would allow Germany to set up a mission in the northern city of Kunduz. German Defense Minister Peter Struck said he favors an expanded role for Germany. But he said the focus must be on civilian rebuilding and not on the military.

NATO Secretary-General Robertson said that while NATO can help with security, it is ultimately the responsibility of the United Nations and Afghans themselves -- especially, the Afghan government -- to create the conditions for stability and prosperity across the country.

"We've got to help them along that road. But in the meantime, there are economic problems. And there are security problems. NATO will be able to help with the security issues because that's what we are good at. But the responsibility for the other elements lies with the United Nations, but most of all, with the Afghan interim administration. They ultimately have got to take ownership of their own country and take it toward stability and prosperity," Robertson said.

For now, Robertson said few ordinary Afghans will notice visible changes in the ISAF due to NATO's new role in commanding the force. He said long-term continuity is the main benefit of having NATO lead the ISAF.

"ISAF will remain ISAF even after the NATO takeover. It's been in existence first under the British, then under Turkey. And then the Germans and the Dutch took over. So ISAF will remain ISAF doing the same job in the same way and the same [UN] mandate. And there will be very little difference in appearance to the ordinary member of the public. But what will happen is that there will be a continuation and that we will be able to deliver a much more sustainable presence in Kabul without this endless rotation of lead nations every six months," he said.

Robertson said it was a logical decision to allow NATO to command the ISAF because most of the troops come from NATO countries, or what he called "NATO partner countries." "All but four of the soldiers in ISAF came from NATO and NATO partner countries, he said. "So it made sense to say, 'Let's stop looking for a new major lead nation every six months.'"

Robertson also noted that Canada's 1,900 ISAF troops and another 1,500 German ISAF troops make those two countries the largest contributors to the UN-mandated force for now. "There are going to be 35 countries as part of this coalition, contributing -- in some cases like Canada and Germany -- a very large number of force, France with something like 300. Right down to countries with four soldiers, five soldiers, maybe even two soldiers. But all brought together because of NATO's unique reputation for interoperability, standardization, the habit of training and educating together -- which allows all of these diverse forces to work well and effectively on the ground in a multinational formation," he said.

Last week, the departing German commander of the ISAF, Lieutenant General Norbert van Heyst, issued an urgent call to the international community to deal with the security problems in the provinces beyond Kabul in the lead-up to Afghanistan's planned June 2004 elections.