Afghanistan is in misery and the situation is likely to get worse over the next two years. That’s the assessment retired General Barry McCaffrey delivered to the Atlantic Council following a recent trip to the country.
After suffering losses in direct military engagement with NATO, the Taliban have now switched to Iraq-style insurgency methods, including suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and the intimidation of local officials to hinder reconstruction efforts. The Taliban’s attacks are becoming more lethal, both to coalition forces and Afghan civilians, and a new Taliban strategy has clearly emerged: attack smaller NATO units to force divisive debate and hopefully a withdrawal from Afghanistan. (A similar approach worked with Spain, who withdrew from Iraq after Al Qaeda attacks on Madrid in 2004.)
Afghanistan, not Georgia, is the test case for a 21st-century NATO. Three changes to NATO’s Afghanistan policy are now desperately needed: add more European troops with greater freedom of operation; refocus the present military mission to encompass wider political objectives; and enact institutional changes at NATO to encourage more efficient practices.
Increase Troop Levels
The U.S. military is stretched to its limits, and the option to go it alone is not, nor should it be, on the table in Afghanistan. Even with the strict rules of engagement placed on many European troops, success in Afghanistan requires all NATO members’ help, and the U.S. recognizes this. However, in addition to U.S. and UK troops, Canadian, Dutch, and French troops are increasingly involved in combat against the Taliban, especially in the southern part of the country. In order to assist these efforts, European NATO states need to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan and relax operational limitations.
To do this, NATO needs to be envisioned once again as a partnership. While the U.S. and Canada should go to further lengths to see their political future as wrapped up in that of Europe, the Europeans must similarly view their military future as wrapped up in North America’s. In something of a reversal from the years of the Balkans wars, it seems that the U.S. now has the political will for a long-term mission while the Europeans would prefer a quicker execution of military objectives.
Refocus the Mission
The political nature of the conflict in Afghanistan must be respected. NATO’s mission in the country is not simply a military one. In an important speech last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates commented that “one of the most important lessons from our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere has been the decisive role reconstruction, development, and governance plays in any meaningful, long-term success.”
Coalition forces cannot just train Afghans in counter-insurgency methods and hope the situation resolves itself. Comprehensive military action, civil reconstruction, and an end to corrupt politics are all needed in Afghanistan. NATO and the U.S. also need to institute processes that will allow various government agencies to lend their expertise in areas such as drug enforcement and border patrol. Recent evidence on the ground even suggests that a majority of Afghans reject the Taliban, and their support for NATO’s mission would probably grow if civilian killings were reduced.
Furthermore, the distinction between militants and drug criminals is increasingly blurred. The profitability and availability of opium make it an obvious choice for Afghan farmers, so drug eradication must become a part of the anti-insurgency campaign if the country is to be prevented from evolving into a narco-state. With a mostly agricultural economy, the government needs to introduce subsidies or incentives to encourage the cultivation of alternative crops while simultaneously making it clear that opium production will not be tolerated.
Reform NATO’s Institutions
Certain NATO bureaucracies must be streamlined. A unity of command in Afghanistan would make operations tremendously more efficient. At present, there is neither one single command in charge of all military units operating within Afghanistan nor is there a sole governing body for the numerous NGOs, reconstruction teams, and UN agencies in the country.
Additionally, the rotating command of ISAF in Afghanistan promotes continual debate as each new country takes the helm. As the largest troop contributor, the U.S. should assume this leadership role for several years at least. With less frequent position changing, more conciliatory and effective working relationships would be given the chance to take root.
Presently, it appears the U.S. possesses the political will but not the military capability to increase forces in Afghanistan while European NATO members are militarily capable of such a move but not politically willing (the UK excluded). Yet, the fact remains that an increase in coalition forces is needed to prevent regress in the country. In recent years, the U.S. has admitted the shortcomings of its early post-9/11 ways and asked the Europeans for help. For the sake of Afghanistan and the Atlantic alliance, they should now provide it.
Peter Cassata is assistant editor at the Atlantic Council. His views are his own.