international analysis and commentary

The US and the West: Reality Check in Afghanistan


Many, especially in Europe, believe that NATO-ISAF is the main military mission in Afghanistan. That is not true, as the biggest effort has been borne, sometimes almost unilaterally, by the US through Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) which started in 2001 and is still up and running.

Why then is NATO making headlines? Because it is in Afghanistan, in the NATO context, that the relationship between the US and its allies is put to the test, as well as their ability to cooperate in a changing world of new powers and alliances.

When the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission was created in 2001 by the UN, chiefly to take over Kabul in the wake of the US invasion, it was inspired by a certain multilateral consensus. From a strictly military point of view, the need for an international force was non-existent, as the US had a clear superiority over the enemy. However, ISAF retained a huge political weight, since it symbolized international agreement on the intervention. Later on, when ISAF was handed over to NATO in 2003, a different rationale prevailed: that NATO could successfully subcontract security in the country as the US waged war in Iraq. The allies, in turn, were happy to welcome that, since they feared that the US would otherwise embark on a unilateralist policy in any strategic area in the world, leaving them far behind. The compromise of this “multilateralism à la carte” was that NATO would do peacekeeping, not peace-enforcing, while OEF would clear the territory of the existing terrorists, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan, ahead of letting ISAF expand throughout the entire country in 2006. In the meanwhile, partners, such as the UK and other countries (including Italy in the Khost province for six months in 2003), could still help the US by placing forces under OEF, if they so wished. Under this division of labor the US would set the tempo and attack the main enemy, taking the biggest brunt in terms of casualties, while the others would follow in a sort of rearguard, to varying degrees and with different tactics in holding the ground. Even after ISAF expanded throughout the entire country in 2006, OEF has continued to operate on its own, and problems of coordination have been addressed, in practice, by superimposing a US chain of command to the entire ISAF-OEF complex. 

In spite of expectations, however, OEF has never really succeeded in stabilizing the south and the east. This became clear when ISAF expanded throughout the entire country and the size of the insurgency appeared more directly. The stark reality is that the military option to stabilize Afghanistan already failed between 2001 and 2006, because forces (even American forces) were too thin, optimism too high and coordination too low.

ISAF and OEF are now trying to travel back in time. The US-inspired rationale behind military deployment and troop surges, then and now, is that military superiority is needed to make the development effort succeed. But the race for that level of superiority, which inches away every day as the insurgency spreads, is sucking up a growing amount of resources. This in turn pushes troop-contributing countries to up their bets to keep their place at the table, but it also raises costs.

In order to leave some leeway for contributing countries, ISAF has developed a mix of different approaches in the five regions it controls (north, south, east, west and the capital), according to which country holds the regional command. This is more of a necessity to accommodate different sensitivities than a deliberate choice.

However the growth of the insurgency poses two urgent problems: it makes allies question the US’s ability in coordinating the overall effort, and it also makes allies more suspicious about the others’ effectiveness in countering the insurgents. This happens even among close allies in the south, where US forces under OEF routinely overlap – sometimes disastrously – with parallel operations run by the British, Canadians and Dutch under ISAF.

As new US troops are deployed under ISAF, it becomes important that the exchange of information improve the way ISAF runs its campaign. Building real consensus on the strategy and tactics is now more crucial than just pushing the numbers up.

That may require some honest discussion, and yet most NATO partners could find it difficult to develop constructive criticism towards the US for fear of crossing it, especially now that a new administration is in place.

Recent moves by the US show an effort towards building a larger consensus. On the military side, the appointment of Gen. McChrystal as ISAF Commander, and of Gen. Rodriguez – an old time Commander of “Enduring Freedom” – as his deputy for operations, could point towards greater attention to the allies’ sensitivities. What is more, on the civilian side, the appointment of Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former Commander of  “Enduring Freedom” and Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, as the new US Ambassador in Kabul, should make civilian-military dialogue easier.

Still, a “US and the rest” divide broadly surfaces also on the future of the Afghan National Security Forces. The US approach is clearly to boost the army and the police to better fight the insurgents. Many countries however, from Europe to Australia, find the paramilitary approach to police ineffective or even counterproductive, as having no police in the streets, rather on the frontline, could make the presence of the State almost invisible and devoid ordinary people of protection. Also, the army is being trained to fight according to the “American way”, i.e. relying on intelligence and fire from above, but on both grounds the Afghans still rely on the US. Hence even if the number of recruits rises, the fighting tactics are likely to remain ineffective for quite some time if the scheme does not change.

An additional issue is that most of the training for the police is subcontracted to private companies that are not directly accountable to international public opinion. One of the cornerstones of international military cooperation is thus defined privately in the US. This could make any other coordinated approach almost irrelevant.

Intelligence sharing is another sour point inside ISAF. Being an “ally” does not entitle any ISAF member to access all the relevant information which may affect its troops. This also makes it very difficult to understand what is really going on in your neighbors’ areas unless, maybe, you spy on them, which is certainly not ideal in an alliance.

All these problems did not exist in 2001, when the military campaign in its early stage took place under a strong and single chain of command, with all available weapons, from a position of uncontested supremacy and without the media, international observers and a locally-elected government in the country. At that time the US could act unilaterally and, then, bring in its allies to divide the spoils. If the US wants to keep its supremacy in the West, it should find a way to make NATO more effective by improving coordination – and yet without imposing it – fostering a deeper, more frank dialogue on how to manage this collective effort. Failing that, bringing in more troops just may not be enough.

The current military deployment in Afghanistan reflects the balance of power in the Western camp. What is really being put to the test is not just the future of NATO, but the belief by Western countries that they can keep their superiority over the rest of the world with the sort of cooperation they currently have. That’s also why so many want them to fail and why it is so important that frank discussion and cooperation be ensured.