NATO in Afghanistan

The Alliance and the Limits of its Strategy

The war in Afghanistan raises major challenges for the North Atlantic Alliance. The outcome of NATO and coalition troops' involvement in the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaida is questionable. An analysis by Timo Noetzel and Sibylle Scheipers

Three Afghans and a German ISAF soldier in Kabul (photo: AP)
More troops? Too many already? NATO is currently struggling with its Afghanistan strategy

​​NATO's Afghanistan operation highlights the difficulties of formulating and imple-menting an integrated strategy for counterinsurgency, anti-terror and stabilisation and reconstruction measures to which all member states agree. The essential ques-tion of whether the NATO member states are currently capable of a joint approach in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly pressing.

The specific operation in Afghanistan results from the differing strategic priorities of the nations participating in ISAF. Whereas NATO members such as the United States and Britain have understood the operation in Afghanistan as an anti-terror operation from the very outset, others such as Germany and Italy emphasised their role in stabilising and rebuilding the country.

Logically, both sides of the equation derive differing consequences from their respective definitions of the operation. The collision of these diverging approaches results in a compromise solution oriented towards a joint consensus. One particular problem is that neither the military nor the civilian means are balanced out with the respectively defined operational objectives.

Military operations in the south of Afghanistan

The extension of ISAF's brief to the south and east of Afghanistan in January 2006 meant that the alliance was faced with an increasing number of military operations. The ISAF commanders are now confronted with the task of running stabilisation and reconstruction measures in the same areas as military operations and measures to combat drug cultivation.

This has caused rising tension within NATO. The varying national policies are expressed in legal caveats for the individual contingents. The majority of the troops in the south of Afghanistan are British, supported by Canada, the US, the Nether-lands and smaller contingents from mainly Nordic states. Other ISAF participants, including Germany in particular, are sceptical about stationing troops in the south. Operation Medusa of September 2006 is a prime example of the resulting problems.

For the first time in its history, NATO carried out a major military operation using ground forces. The operation came up against far stronger resistance on the part of the Taliban than originally anticipated. Several NATO member states, including Germany, refused the support requested by the Canadian commander, citing national operational restrictions.

Running a multinational operation, however, requires a fundamental willingness to share burdens and risks on all parts. That means that the troops under NATO command are in reality only available to the ISAF commander to a limited extent, and subject to a political veto.

ISAF's equipment

The difficulties, however, are not limited to the employability of troops; the equip-ment and means of transport provided by the ISAF member states are also substan-dard to the requirements in Afghanistan. There is a particular shortage of transport helicopters and reconnaissance equipment. Overall, the alliance's troop structure is not designed for the provision of troops and equipment for military operations such as that in Afghanistan, or the member states are unwilling to provide the equipment – if they have it at all.

The equipment and weapons of the troops in the field are primarily intended to protect the soldiers, not to make them more effective. To minimise the risk of losing soldiers as far as possible, the coalition concentrates on aerial attacks on Taliban rebels. However, the use of airborne troops will always cost civilian lives. On the one hand, the Taliban and al-Qaida misuse civilians as a human shield, in the interest of high victim statistics. On the other hand, aerial attacks can never be precisely on-target, despite technological progress.

Essentially, the potential of the troops and equipment provided is by no means sufficient for the military assignment in Afghanistan. This imbalance means that the NATO troops are no longer capable of maintaining military control over certain regions. All they can do is claim tactical victories over Taliban units. And the value of these victories is limited as long as the scheduled security sector reform is held up.

Difficulties with the security sector reform

The stabilisation and reconstruction measures tabled for the ISAF mission reflect the lack of agreement among the NATO states. Particularly the idea of allocating responsibility for individual issues of the reform of the Afghan security sector to certain nations has proved unworkable. The reality on the ground has showed that the individual aspects of the security sector reform cannot be separated, neither in terms of content nor in terms of personal accountability.

In addition, the concept of individual responsibility has suffered from the fact that the nations in question have been pursuing fundamentally diverging approaches, with differing objectives. As a result, for example, Germany and Italy have not substantially pushed the reconstruction of the police force and justice system, while Britain is not much further in fulfilling its task of combating drug cultivation.

The introduction of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) has also contributed little towards stabilising and rebuilding the country. While the US regards the PRTs as a means to win over "hearts and minds", German strategy aims to create positive conditions for civilian aid organisations in unsafe regions with the least possible use of military resources.

However, the PRTs, few in number in comparison to the size of the country, have not been able to make substantial progress in this regard. And due to the increas-ingly critical security situation, the PRTs have developed a kind of barricade mentality. For instance, no more than 10–20% of German soldiers in Afghanistan ever leave the military base at which they are stationed. Logically, little remains of the original idea of highly flexible small units embedded in Afghan society.

The aim of making effective and coordinated use of civilian and military resources by means of an integrated approach remains unfulfilled, particularly due to the insufficient presence of civilian partners such as the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank on the ground.

Lack of unity on legal basis for war

The lack of a mutual strategy for the Afghanistan operation is also closely linked with the fact that there has never been agreement on its legal basis. This mainly applies to the legal status of al-Qaida members and the Taliban. Whereas the USA refuses al-Qaida and Taliban fighters the status of prisoners of war, defining them as "unlawful combatants”, the European partners have allowed no room for doubt that they would apply the Geneva Convention to the war in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (photo: dpa)
Potential prisoner of war or "unlawful combatant"? European partners and the US are at odds about the legal status of Taliban fighters

​​European troops initially handed prisoners over to their American partners regard-less, because the alliance did not have its own internment facilities as part of ISAF. Only with the successive extension of the operational area and the resulting increase in prisoner numbers did it become clear how contentious this subject was within the coalition. NATO then fundamentally altered its policy in this area.

Since 2005, various ISAF member states have concluded Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the Afghan government, according to which prisoners must be handed over to the Afghan security forces within 96 hours.

However, NATO's attempts to negotiate a joint MOU for all ISAF states failed. The Afghan government was forced to sign separate MOUs with every single ISAF state, meaning there is still no single legal document regulating prisoner status.

The Allies' dissension on the legal basis of the operation has also undermined the legitimacy of the mission, placing their own aim of offering a model for the recon-struction of a constitutional state in Afghanistan at question. In the light of the reports on abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (Iraq), this lack of unity has increasingly reduced the European partners' willingness to support the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan in any consistent form. The result is a weaken-ing of the alliance's ability to react to strategically important developments.

No regional dimension to strategy

Regional influences are becoming more and more important for the Afghanistan operation. Afghanistan can only be stabilised in the medium term if Iran and Paki-stan provide their support for this objective. The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular has developed into an area of retreat and a basis for al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The Taliban maintain their own camps in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border, where fighters are trained and operations are planned and initiated. The NATO operation in Afghanistan will only succeed by means of a strategy that takes the role of the Pakistani tribal areas into sufficient account. This has not been the case to date.


The division of operational regions and tasks in the reform of the Afghan security sector encourages disagreements among the NATO member states concerning the alliance's objectives in Afghanistan – especially as the differing regional and sector focus of the troops and civilians on the ground result in differing tasks and risks and differing financial burdens on the respective ISAF nations. Consensus between the coalition partners on the future of the Afghanistan operation depends on their willingness to make greater compromises in allocating these burdens and risks.

However, the internal discussion within NATO should not be restricted to the planning and implementation of the operation, but must also cover the necessary coalition structures to an equal extent.

Despite the obvious difficulties associated with reaching consensus on military operations, there is no way to fundamentally change NATO's decision-making structures. It would thus be all the more important to create an internal context that makes it easier for the member states to reach understandings on issues of strategic planning and operative implementation. As the provision of expensive equipment, for example, is continually prevented by financing issues, one important step on the operative level might be implementing joint financing mechanisms.

One very ambitious target would be to formulate a new strategic concept based on past experiences of counterinsurgency and anti-terror operations, with the aim of a joint military policy doctrine. A concept of this type should clarify not only strategic questions, but also the legal basis for military operations. The alliance has to find answers as to how a coordinated mission can put civilian and military means into operation. In this context, NATO also has to deal with the issue of whether it needs its own civilian capacities.

With regard to the debate on the Afghanistan mandate in the German parliament, the most pressing fundamental question in the current situation is what contribution Germany might make towards strengthening the alliance's strategic capability. Another point in need of clarification is whether it makes sense for politicians to set an upper limit for troop numbers or whether the mandate ought not instead to define certain tasks and capabilities, from which troop numbers would then be derived.

It is also questionable whether limiting the operation to one further year is a useful measure, especially as there can be no realistic expectations of progress to an extent that would justify a fundamental change of the mandate or even a withdrawal of troops in such a short period.

It would make more sense to ordain a longer mandate, with a flexible regulation of contingent sizes allowing the German commanders to send additional troops to Afghanistan for certain operational tasks (such as military training), subject to consent from the defence committee.

Timo Noetzel and Sibylle Scheipers

© Timo Noetzel and Sibylle Scheipers/ 2007

Timo Noetzel and Sibylle Scheipers are political advisors at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs or Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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Reconnaissance Flights against the "Neo-Taliban"
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The provision of Tornado reconnaissance planes by the Bundeswehr is a meagre contribution to the major Nato offensive. But this is in any case the wrong way to achieve a comprehensive political stabilization for Afghanistan, Citha D. Maaß believes

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