Center for Strategic Decision Research



Kabul and Beyond: NATO’s Challenge in Afghanistan

General Gerhard W. Back
Commander, Allied Joint Force Command, Brunssum

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak at this prestigious gathering and to explore with you the important issues raised by this workshop. As the NATO Operational Commander for Afghanistan, I want to look at how the ISAF mission is developing and how the changes underway in the mission will affect the Alliance.


Afghanistan is most often referred to at events such as this as NATO’s highest priority. The Alliance has been in the country since August 2003, progressing from the capital to having forces in the north of the country in July 2004 and to the west in May 2005. Throughout, the Headline mission has remained the same: to assist the government of Afghanistan in extending and maintaining its authority and fostering greater stability and security. From a military standpoint this mission has been pursued so far with a relatively light footprint. Provincial Reconstruction Teams are the key enablers, backed by maneuver forces that bolster security. Though some question whether this approach is sufficient to accomplish the mission, the methodology is a resource-effective way of pursuing our key military tasks, in addition to supporting reconstruction efforts.

The successes so far have been many. Governance is improving, free elections have been achieved, and reconstruction and security sector reforms are showing progress. ISAF has played a large part in executing the main tenets of the Bonn Agreement, most notably assisting in providing security for the first election of a president in decades and establishing a parliament and provincial councils. But the real test of our success is whether the Afghan people feel safe in their homes and villages, whether they are free of corruption and bribery, and whether they can exercise the rights guaranteed to them in their new Constitution. Measured against those objectives we still have a long way to go.

Insurgents continue to maintain influence in some areas of the country and have adapted their tactics. While they are unable to mass large forces, this can actually work in their favor by making them unpredictable and difficult to confront. Over the last year we have also seen a significant move towards the use of improvised explosive devices against Coalition and ISAF forces, and more recently a rise in suicide bombers. The older tactics of intimidation and violence against government officials, NGOs, and other “soft” targets have, if anything, increased. In addition, the insurgents are proving adept at capitalizing on links with criminal and narcotics elements to garner support and generate funds.


The NATO mission will soon encompass the whole of the territory of Afghanistan. Over the next few months ISAF will expand into the south and east of the country. Up to now ISAF has been operating in areas in which the systemic problems of insecurity and violence were present but active fighting with opposing forces was rare; however, current areas of low opposing force activity could rapidly become hot spots as the enemy adapts to the new situation. Whatever the situation, expansion will bring a marked change in NATO’s stance. While stabilization remains a priority, NATO has committed to conducting offensive security operations against opposing military forces. This will not include counterterrorism operations, which will remain the responsibility of Coalition Forces under Operation Enduring Freedom. However, there should be no doubt that NATO will have the capability and the will to pursue insurgents who threaten the goals of the ISAF mission.

There is, however, a difficult paradox. In order to achieve stability and security, there is a need to tackle the wider problems of factionalism, power brokers, illegally armed groups, narcotics, and criminality. Employment of NATO military forces must be balanced to ensure that Afghan ownership is maintained and to make sure that PRTs can continue to operate with the consent of the people. If this is lost, then the pivot on which we do all that we do in Afghanistan will become unhinged. ISAF must continue to avoid a fortress mentality and work to develop a bond of trust with the people they are there to help.

This same paradox underscores the fact that providing security against insurgents is not the only requirement for achieving progress. Afghanistan is a country ravaged by years of conflict and one in which every sort of structure, apart from the tribal culture, from the national to the local level, was decimated. While things have improved over the last four years, criminality, corruption, and the narcotics trade remain rife. There has been growing realization that if we are going to make progress towards the goal of having the international community no longer needed, NATO must continue to be involved in achieving tangible results in security sector reform, promoting good governance, and assisting in building the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces.


Ultimately, NATO’s goal is to put itself out of business in Afghanistan and to do so before the nations of the Alliance tire of supporting the mission. At the same time we need to appreciate that no military organization has the skills or capacity to guide a nation down the road to rehabilitation. It is therefore important that the international community stays at the forefront of coordinating all the stakeholders to ensure coherent government support—the U.N. should retain its leading role in this effort. I believe that the mutually reinforcing relationship NATO and the U.N. have had over the last few years has set new standards in the way that our two organizations work together.

Of course, one of the toughest impediments to progress in Afghanistan is the role of the illicit trade in narcotics; the country will not be normalized until there is a significant improvement in this area. The government has taken a very courageous stance in combating this evil and, with international assistance, has developed a coordinated program of interdiction, eradication, and prosecution.

But again, balance is important. It is of little use to target the farmers who are merely scratching out a living to support their families and who have few, if any, options. It is the bigger players we need to target. A comprehensive approach is needed that encourages farmers to turn to alternatives. Until they have choices, eradication alone will not solve the problem. While counter-narcotics efforts are becoming more coordinated and the criminal justice system is gradually growing in capacity, we need to be realistic. This work is going to require a coordinated, focused, long-term effort from all quarters, both at the national and international levels.


I believe that NATO has a very robust plan for the post-expansion environment, but there are still challenges. From a political point of view I have been very encouraged by the degree of consensus that emerged as the NATO Council considered ISAF expansion. I see this as a positive sign that the Alliance is maturing and that its decision-making structures are changing to be able to meet the demands of expeditionary warfare. However, we must also acknowledge that improvements are still needed to sharpen reactions to meet the pace of operations. How NATO generates forces and funds for such a testing mission are examples of where the Alliance has yet to find truly responsive solutions.

With troop numbers planned to almost double from the present 9,000 in the months ahead, NATO’s mechanism for generating forces and maintaining its large commitment will be severely tested. National caveats also continue to limit COMISAF’s freedom of maneuverability in his deployment and employment of forces. Every caveat increases risk and is unwelcome, and I continue to work to ensure they are eliminated.

ISAF expansion will be a significant trial for NATO, not only regarding our internal processes but also regarding the political will behind the commitment. I am confident that our actions on the ground to tackle the insurgents and assist the Afghans in providing stability and reconstruction will speak for themselves. But I fully expect that opposing forces will test ISAF’s capabilities and resolve over the next few months. While we will be ready, the political will to see this mission through to a reasonable end point is beyond my responsibilities. For that to be realized, I think we need to agree on achievable goals, pursue them vigorously, and then turn the task over to the Afghans before our forces become part of the problem.


Great progress has been made in bringing Afghanistan back from tyranny and a vicious cycle of self-destruction. But there remains a need for pragmatism. Many of the problems Afghanistan faces today gestated over many years. There will be no quick solutions; the partnership between the international community and the Afghan nation will require long-term commitment. But the ISAF mission is a milestone for NATO. The Alliance has made astonishing progress over the last few years in becoming agile enough to deal with the new threats we face, much of it driven by the requirements to meet the challenge in Afghanistan. The fact that NATO nations have faced up to the need for offensive security operations is an indication that the organization is growing into its role as a global force for good.

I cannot pretend that we have it all right as yet, but I am convinced that we are fielding the best prepared and most capable force NATO can muster. The experience of the past year gives me confidence that NATO will continue to evolve and develop to reconfirm that NATO deserves its reputation as the most successful military alliance of all time.


Top of page | Home | ©2007 Center for Strategic Decision Research