NATO's problems in Afghanistan dominated much of the discussion at its recent summit in Riga. During the past year, the Taliban has launched increasingly effective operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The fighting this year, the heaviest since 2001, has already killed over 3,000 people, including 150 foreign soldiers. At present, the Taliban insurgency may encompass as many as 10,000 combatants and an extensive civilian support base whose members provide supplies, shelter, and intelligence.
Although the 40,000-man Afghan National Army (ANA) has become more effective, its units still cannot defeat major Taliban attacks without direct Western assistance. At present, two groups provide this support. The first group—the 8,000 troops under the U.S. Combined Forces Command, which falls under exclusive American control—is mainly charged with conducting antiterrorism missions. The formal mission of the second—the 32,000 troops deployed under the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which includes a large U.S. military contingent of 12,000 soldiers—is to help maintain security, support the development of national institutions, and assist with economic reconstruction. Other countries contributing large numbers of troops to ISAF include Britain (6,000 soldiers), Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and France.
In August 2003, NATO took charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) established in Afghanistan by the United Nations. ISAF's formal mission is to help maintain security, support the development of national institutions, and assist with economic reconstruction. From its original focus on providing security in the capital region of Kabul, ISAF has been extending its mission to other regions of the country—first to the north, then the west, and most recently to the south and east. Under the command of British General David Richards, the NATO troops assigned to ISAF have engaged in the first land war in the alliance's history
At Riga, NATO's political and military leaders argued that the alliance must take certain urgent measures to help stabilize the Afghan government. First, they maintained that the allies needed to provide additional troops, especially in the volatile south. A week before the summit, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, head of U.S. Command Forces Command-Afghanistan, complained that NATO governments had only provided 85% of their promised troop contributions. Despite urgent pleas on this score, Poland and the United States alone recently agreed to increase, modestly, the size of their contingents in Afghanistan.
Second, NATO leaders have called on member governments to curb the use of national caveats, which limit the permissible use of their forces. Although NATO countries keep the details of these caveats secret to avoid assisting the Taliban insurgents, NATO Supreme Commander James L. Jones complained in October 2006 that alliance commanders have to deal with some 50 operationally important national restrictions when planning missions. All 26 NATO countries have troops operating in Afghanistan, but only 6 did not impose advanced operational restrictions on their use before the summit.
Some of these caveats restrict the locations where troops can operate; others limit the type of operations they can engage in. For example, several NATO governments—as well as non-NATO members such as New Zealand—permit their troops to participate only in non-combat civil affairs missions as part of the two dozen Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) run by ISAF or the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command. The international community adopted the PRT concept after it became clear that countries would not provide sufficient peacekeeping troops for a country of 30 million inhabitants. At present, fewer foreign troops are deployed in Afghanistan than in Kosovo, which only has two million residents. The PRTs work with national and local Afghan groups to promote economic and political reconstruction in many though not all Afghan provinces. They are led by different nations and vary in size, but with an average of fewer than one hundred members, these mixed military-civilian teams must depend on NATO combat troops for their ultimate protection.
In the weeks before the summit, other governments criticized Germany in particular for its restrictive military policies in Afghanistan. At present, almost 3,000 German troops operate in the country's northern sector. Along with certain other foreign countries (including France and Spain) with smaller contingents, German leaders have adamantly refused to deploy large numbers of their forces to other sectors where the fighting is more intense. As a result, American, British, Canadian, Dutch, and other NATO forces have had to counter the Taliban's resurgence in southern Afghanistan without direct German military assistance.
Since Riga, German officials have stressed that, like other NATO troops, their forces remain ready to operate anywhere in Afghanistan in an emergency. Nevertheless, the German government plans to keep most of its forces in Afghanistan's northern sector, which German officials note encompasses 40% of the country. Less vocally, they complain about NATO's overly militarized approach to the Afghan conflict. The German public widely prefers that German soldiers engage in civic reconstruction and other non-combat missions with the PRTs.
The failure of the Riga summit to secure either a substantial increase in the size of the NATO contingents in Afghanistan or freedom to use the existing forces most effectively forebodes tough times for the Afghan government and their Western allies in the years ahead.