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Last Updated: Monday, 26 December 2005, 10:50 GMT
Nato's Afghanistan troop dilemma

By Ahmed Rashid

A Greek military vehicle burns following a suicide attack in Kabul
The Taleban want a political vacuum and are targeting Nato troops

Guest journalist and writer Ahmed Rashid reflects in his latest column for the BBC News website on Nato's dilemma over troop expansion in Afghanistan.

Nato's very public announcement on 8 December that it will send an additional 6,000 troops to Taleban-infested southern Afghanistan next spring and Washington's more cryptic remarks that it wants to withdraw 4,000 troops from the same region at the same time are being read very differently by all those affected.

Most Afghans and many diplomats in the capital, Kabul, see it as the start of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, no matter how profusely Washington's spin machine insists that "the US will never abandon the Afghans".

Senior aides to President Hamid Karzai say any US withdrawal, no matter how it is camouflaged, will be disastrous for people's morale and remind them of the US withdrawal from Afghan affairs after the Soviet pullout in 1989.

The Taleban and al-Qaeda would like to see a political and military vacuum develop as US troops begin to depart.

For the first time, the Taleban have begun to target Nato peace-keeping forces in Kabul and Kandahar with suicide attacks.

It is a deliberate strategic move to try to frighten off European countries from becoming part of future Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Shifting burden

Afghanistan's six neighbours, all of whom are still clandestinely backing various warlord proxies inside the country, are likely to see the shift in forces as a weakening of Western resolve and an opportunity to push forward their proxies - just in case the Kabul government shows signs of weakness.

It is sad but true that despite the deployment of 9,000 troops, Nato has still not developed a positive image of itself amongst Afghans outside Kabul

The administration of President George W Bush sees it as an opportunity to redeem popularity at home by bringing the boys home from a foreign war, even though the militants are far from defeated.

Shifting the burden to the Europeans is also a chance for the US State Department to try to recharge the Atlantic alliance after all the unilateral and isolationist moves undertaken by the first Bush administration.

For those idealistic and ambitious European countries who want to see Nato develop as the most powerful global alliance, which can take on the problems of the world and help solve them without necessarily depending on the Americans, Afghanistan presents a golden opportunity to test Nato's resolve.

Meanwhile smaller European countries who are appalled at human rights violations and the treatment of prisoners by the Bush administration, see the Nato deployment as a result of excessive bullying by a US administration that wants them to take on an ever larger share of what is still a US-led war on terrorism.

The Nato deployment, announced with much fanfare in Brussels after a meeting of the 26 foreign ministers of Nato countries, came after months of agonising and countries refusing to take part in the new deployment.

Coffin of the German soldier who was killed in a suicide bombing on Nato forces in Afghanistan
Nato troops are feeling vulnerable after suicide attacks

"When the expansion takes place next year, it will mean Nato is operating in three-quarters of Afghanistan," said Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

At present, while the 19,000 strong US-led coalition is responsible for waging war on the Taleban, the estimated 9,000 strong Nato contingent is carrying out peace-keeping duties in Kabul.

Nato forces have taken over from some American-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) - with Germany deploying in the north-east, Britain in the north and Italy and Spain taking over in the west.

In late November, senior White House officials in Washington confirmed to me that the administration would be withdrawing some 4,000 troops from southern Afghanistan next spring, once a Nato-led force was in place.

US officials refuse to use the term withdrawal, insisting it is merely a troops "adjustment" or "rotation".

In the past few months, Washington has leaned hard on Nato to come up with a commitment so it can start planning its troop withdrawal.

Security concerns

However Nato has still not answered the critical questions, which will be paramount in the minds of Afghans next spring as well as those remaining US forces.

Are Nato troops really prepared to move beyond peace-keeping duties and take on a combat role in a region which is the hotbed of Taleban activity?

Dutch soldiers unload an Apache-D helicopter from a cargo aircraft in Kabul
There is much debate over a combative role for Nato troops

Is Nato going to be more than just the proverbial cleaner who arrives after the battle to clear up the mess and keep the peace in a failed state?

It is sad but true that despite the deployment of 9,000 troops, Nato has still not developed a positive image of itself amongst Afghans outside Kabul.

Every single deployment of Nato troops or aircraft since 2003 has led to months of wrangling between European capitals and Nato's high command, played out very publicly in the press.

Even in their peace-keeping role, each Nato country's forces have a list of what they will do and not do - national caveats - that has paralysed Nato commanders in Kabul.

Spanish troops based in the west will rarely leave their compound.

German troops in the north will allow no other Nato troops to fly in their helicopters.

Every nation has a different concept of running a PRT which makes any kind of unified reconstruction programme in the provinces next to impossible.

Moreover Nato troops seem far more concerned about their own security than the security of the Afghans they are supposed to be protecting.

Welcome presence

Yet what everyone tends to forget is that, unlike in Iraq and despite widespread mistakes made by American forces resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, the majority of Afghans still consider Western forces as a guarantor that the international community will continue to provide security and help fund reconstruction of the country.

Afghan woman passes by a destroyed jeep of the ISAF vehicle destroyed suicide car bomb attack targeting the Nato forces
Afghans want Western troops to help with reconstruction

In other words Western forces are still welcome - as long as they are really useful and are willing to both fight and help in reconstruction.

Take this present deployment.

For the past six months Britain has had tremendous difficulties in getting support from other Nato countries to join it in deploying to six provinces in the south and take over the American base in Kandahar.

Britain and Canada are committed to deploy an estimated 4,000 troops, but they needed another 2,000 more - specifically soldiers who will perform a peace-keeping role in the shape of PRTs, but also would not hesitate to fight if called upon to do so.

Major European countries such as France, Spain and Germany have refused to take part in operations that could involve fighting the Taleban.

The Netherlands, which had promised 1,000 troops, hesitated for months before agreeing to the deployment, while it took weeks of cajoling to get Denmark and Sweden to come up with a few hundred extra troops.

Even within the British government there has been a hot debate.

Some 3,000 British troops will deploy in the south, including 2,000 in Helmand province alone.

While 1,000 troops will deploy as a massive PRT to do reconstruction and help in opium eradication, the other 1,000 will deploy as a combat force ready to take on the Taleban.


Helmand is the heart of Taleban resistance and opium production, but like the US army the British military is balking at demands from the British Foreign Office and Prime Minister Tony Blair to help stem the virulent narcotics trade, which is helping fund terrorist operations.

British soldiers near a German military vehicle which was hit by a suicide attack in Kabul
British troops are reluctant to play an anti-drugs role

It is still not clear what mandate British troops will have to deal with interdicting drugs convoys, making arrests or getting involved with eradication of the poppy crop on the ground.

However there is no point in the British having a mandate in dealing with the drugs trade, if other Nato troops refuse to do the same job.

Even the Americans, who have been pushing Britain to get involved in dealing with drugs, do not allow their troops to get involved in either interdiction or eradication.

So why should Britain stick its neck out and do something that neither the Americans nor other Nato countries are willing to do?

Making war and building peace in Afghanistan will be a long process and any weakness shown by the Western alliance in its commitment will only bolster the enemy.

This debate is now closed. Here are a selection of your comments:

Why should Britain stick its neck out and do something that neither the Americans nor other Nato countries are willing to do? For the same reason America sticks its neck out to fight against the Taleban: someone's gotta do it.
Ron, New York, USA

Once again an excellent and troubling article. It highlights the shortsightedness and lack of political commitment of the US to construct rather than simply destruct. In addition, the article's focus on European lack of political vision hits the nail on the head. Europeans, despite the moral high ground they usually adopt, are politically ineffective around the world. They lack energy, commitment and have for too long barricaded themselves hypocritically behind their ideals, which ironically they violate every time they are unable to take a politically decisive position and refuse to commit themselves.
Nasseera Qaderi, USA

It is obvious that after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the Europeans in NATO are trying to re-define their position as a force. Perhaps Afghanistan is the wrong time and place to test this new strategy, Following in behind the US military, with its tarnished record of human rights and torture will tie the European contingents too closely to US methods and foreign policy.
Philip Stevens, Roatan, Honduras

As an Afghan national living in France since 2002, but more, as an young Afghan who have worked for two year for a French International NGO working in the Rural Economic Development, I have had the opportunities to travel almost all over my homeland. These experiences just showed me that the Afghan people are really very tired of doing war. But any disengagement of the Western World in Afghanistan, will repeat the recent history of the country; civil war, looting, raping on very dramatic scale this time. The Americans have started a war, they have to carry it out till its logical end.
Javed, Rennes - France

As we all know, the Afghan democracy is very much in its nascent stage. Presidential and parliamentary elections held this year were indeed positive developments. However, Afghanistan will need at least eight years of peacekeeping mission as currently represented by NATO/Coalition forces. Should these forces leave prematurely, the neighbouring countries, including Al Qaeda forces will again vie for the destruction of Afghanistan and its people.
Khan Jalal, New York, USA

If US and her allies want peace and progress in Afghanistan and the region, they should develop full fledged Afghan National Army and put them in place before US and Nato forces withdraw. I think Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russian will be unable to harm Afghan Nation in presence of stronger and well-equipped Afghan Army.
Jahan Zeb, Hamilton-Canada

Afghanistan has been a major problem for a long time. Sadly this country has suffered again and again from its neighbours. Just remember Salvador and Nicaragua. To bring this country out of the mess we have to create a strong independent central government and make them tackle their own problems. This would require some help from the U.S and NATO. We wouldn't be in this situation if the Americans had done what they should have in the 1990's this problem would have been long solved. Oscar
Oscar De la cruz, San Jose, Ca

Rashid's insight is illuminating, as always. I have a few minor dissents. I believe a handful of small successes last summer have mis-led too many into believing the Taliban are a greater threat than they truly are. For each of these headline-making successes, they suffer ten painful tactical setbacks at the hands of US and Afghan Rashid is absolutely right that the Americans should not withdraw, or even draw-down, forces. Instead, they should concentrate in the east while the British, Canadians and Dutch take over the south. They must also continue to lean on Pakistan, where the senior Talibs remain in hiding. NATO forces need to be prepared for a 4-5 year stay while the security situation improves and Afghan political structures mature.
Chris, Tacoma, Washington, USA

The best part of this article - and the core of any argument for the deployment of more troops for peace and security in the troubled parts of the country by NATO allies - is the focus on the desire of the grassroots population, i.e. those whose daily lives are directly affected by the security and economic woes, who have largely received foreign troops with open arms. And to be quite honest, there's an awful lot that foreign forces can do in Afghanistan at this juncture in the country's history. Abandoning it would be a double betrayal; the betrayal of a strong NATO alliance and the betrayal of helping people in dire need of it. Thanks to Mr Rashid for a level-headed analysis.
Janan, Ottawa

Taleban monster was created as a result of Afghanistan's neighbours fighting a war of vested interests on Afghan soil, including India's RAW, and Iran vs ISI, in order to stop Pakistan-based mujahideens from taking over control of their devastated country, when Russians moved out. American's have of course their own agenda, and there is hardly any real term progress in construction of the country, outside Kabul. Unless Afghan people are engaged in re-construction and repatriated and their country is re-build for what they suffered during cold war, there can be no real peace.
Faisal Shafiq, Edmonton, Canada

It is strange for me to read an article like this. I mean ss there some people who really believe that USA or NATO countries want to help Afghan people rebuild their country for free? I do not think so. Instead, I strongly believe that Afghanistan has nothing to offer to USA or to NATO and the US-led invasion had only one motive: to oust the Taleban regime and capture OBL. Once done it, whatever other interests are merely collateral interests with no importance. It is only rhetoric to say that they are going to rebuild Afghanistan or help Afghan people live free in democracy.
Markus Wulff, Lima, Peru

I think NATO have not made a good decision by sending troops to afghanistan,specially to Kandahar and surroundings. I am afraid Southren afghanistan will break this alliance for good. The leaders of NATO will regret this decision in a few years to come.
Ahmad Kandahari, Kandahar/Afghanistan

This is flawed strategic thinking. The root cause of the problem of the taleban is the Pakistani ISI. Pakistan, Saudi and the USA created this taleban monster --- in the days of playing chess with real countries -- Without their(ISI) express help (and blessings) all efforts by NATO or any other party will fail. That is unless these parties want to permanently occupy Afghanistan. Tackle Pakistan and their out of control ISI and the Taleban loose their most important ally.
hari tolilal patel, london

NATO is once again bieng tested. If it fails then I am affraid it has become completely irrelevant.
Allen, Lansing MI USA

It's interesting to see countries putting their national interests forward when representing a multinational alliance. The North Atlantic alliance may have been an exemplar of 'postnationalism' in the Baltic case as noted by Jurgen Habermas; the independent strategies of the 'allies' in dealing with the Afghan question however is demonstrative of the importance still attached to national sentiments, especially when it comes to questions such as security.
Popa, Male, Maldives

Excellent analysis. Strategic targetting of non-US/UK NATO forces is spot-on. question is : how/who is facilitating the attacks in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul - not easy to egress for AQ ... excellent article
richard jacobs, Dublin Ireland

As usual, he is bang on the money!
Sohail Ansari, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia



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