An agreement, in principle, by NATO countries to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan beyond Kabul has been welcomed today by the Afghan government as well as aid workers and analysts. But important steps remain before NATO troops can be deployed to the country's provincial regions -- including approval of a new ISAF mandate by the UN Security Council and final approval by NATO of specific military plans.
Prague, 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry today welcomed NATO's decision that it would be willing to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul Province. Ministry spokesman Omar Samad called the development "good news for Afghanistan and for the Afghan people." Nongovernmental organizations and aid groups that have called for such an expansion for more than a year also welcomed the news.
But Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Afghan and South Asia program, says it remains unclear whether the proposed ISAF expansion will bring the desired results. "It's certainly positive that NATO has decided to go in for an expanded ISAF mandate," she says. "How positive it is will depend on the nature of that mandate, the number of forces involved and the missions that NATO will undertake as ISAF in Afghanistan."
A NATO official in Brussels who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity says the agreement, passed yesterday by the alliance's North Atlantic Council, is a "political guideline" under which an expansion of the ISAF mandate can be envisaged.
The official stressed that it is an agreement, in principle, that allows NATO military planners to contemplate an expansion of ISAF beyond Kabul Province. The official said that specific details about troop numbers and deployment locations will be discussed within NATO during the coming days.
NATO has led ISAF since August. Any expansion of the force outside of Kabul Province will require a new UN Security Council mandate. Plans now being drawn up by the alliance's military experts also will need to be approved by all 19 NATO countries.
NATO countries yesterday also agreed to allow Germany to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz. The timing of that decision has left some analysts questioning whether the eight proposed PRT bases across the country are to become a mechanism for expanding ISAF. The ICG's Ahmed says the existing PRT model is certainly not sufficient for the security tasks at hand.
"The German proposal is to have a very small presence in Kunduz, which is 250 troops. That is pretty much along the lines of the earlier PRT concepts, which were close to about 100 to 260 troops. That's pretty much all it constitutes. If this is the way that NATO intends to go as far as expansion is concerned, it's not going to have a huge amount of impact. A physical presence of international peacekeepers on the ground does matter, symbolically. But you need to have more substance in terms of numbers -- 250 troops won't do it," Ahmed said.
Ahmed explains that the PRTs originally were conceived as a way to establish provincial bases for U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan. Ostensibly, the PRTs were created to bring coalition soldiers into the reconstruction efforts. But U.S. Special Forces are also part of the security element of each PRT.
"The PRT concept was an American concept. And the reason why the U.S. opted for the PRT concept was because the United States, at that point in time, opposed ISAF expansion outside of Kabul," Ahmed says. "So the idea was to have a very small number of civil and military personnel stationed in a very few areas -- but just to prove that, yes, there was an intent and a purpose to extend the security umbrella outside of Kabul."
One development contributing to the notion that the PRTs could become a mechanism for ISAF expansion is the deployment of a UN Security Council fact-finding mission to Afghanistan from 31 October to 8 November. The announcement came yesterday after outgoing NATO Secretary-General George Robertson informed the Security Council of NATO's willingness to lead an expanded ISAF. That 15-member diplomatic mission is expected to visit Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, and Kandahar -- all areas where a PRT has either already been established or is soon to be set up. Led by Germany's UN Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, the UN mission was organized by U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte after he took over as president of the Security Council this month.
Negroponte himself is to join the mission, along with French UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, Russia's Sergey Lavrov and Pakistan's Munir Akram. Negroponte said in an official letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the mission would "convey a strong message to regional and factional leaders" in Afghanistan about the need to reject all violence, to condemn extremist, terrorist, and illegal drug activities, and to ensure public order and safety.
Oksana Atonenko, a specialist on Central Asian and security issues at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells RFE/RL she thinks it will be easier to expand ISAF into parts of northern Afghanistan than it will be in the south and southeast.
"In the north -- this is the area where probably this expansion can happen sooner rather than later. Because the security situation in the north is relatively under control as opposed to the south, where the fighting is still going on [against the resurgent Taliban] and there are still American forces undertaking very active special operations and military actions. [But] in the north, I think the military presence would be more in the role of a police force or working with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams to assure security for various programs. The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration is one of the programs that is just starting now in the middle of October," Atonenko said.
But the ICG's Ahmed says she thinks it probably already is too late for ISAF to expand in time to create the necessary conditions for free and fair elections by June of next year -- the timeline established under the internationally backed Bonn accords on Afghanistan's post-Taliban transition. "Time is rolling by," she says, adding that she doubts the right conditions will be in place for free and fair elections by next June. "Even if NATO were to expand now, and even if there are sufficient peacekeepers and sufficient peace enforcers on the ground, it is going to be very difficult to conduct all the other exercises that go along with an election -- such as finding out how many people are there on the ground. In other words, a census, of sorts. The registration of voters. So there are any number of problems already. And compounded with that, of course, is the Taliban resurgence -- which means that large parts of the south and the east, at this point in time, are very problematic."
Ahmed concludes that if press reports are correct in predictions that ISAF will be expanded by between 2,000 to 5,000 more troops, the force will still be "insufficient" to create the conditions for free and fair elections.