Collectively disunited: the patchwork coalition in Afghanistan
Etienne de Durand, Fellow, French International Relations Institute and a specialist on security and defense issues.
Etienne de Durand : “The countries that make up the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) are not in Afghanistan for the same reasons.”
LEMONDE.FR | 09.FEB.07 | 20:50 • Updated 09.02.07 | 21:12
Q. In what situation do NATO forces in Afghanistan find themselves on the eve of a widely expected Taliban offensive?
A: Both NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) are in the same situation they were in last year, but with US reinforcements, i.e. 35,000 men in total. The situation on the ground introduces three types of problems: The first is the geography of Afghanistan: the topography, the political, ethnic and tribal divisions of the country complicate the anti-insurgency operations. Afghanistan, like Lebanon, deserves the label of "complicated country".
There are also political and military divisions within NATO itself. Politically, the countries that make up the International Security and Assistance Force are not in Afghanistan for the same reasons. Some of them, like Poland and Germany, are participating in operations against the Taliban to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Following operation “Enduring Freedom”, launched in 2001, a number of European states wished to show their solidarity with the US, especially those which did not send troops to Iraq. In Afghanistan, the presence of certain Western states had nothing to do with strategic considerations. Some states which have sent troops to Afghanistan do not believe that the mission is worth accepting the risk of reestablishing stability at all costs.
This can be seen on two levels: the ambiguity and the muddle of rules of engagement differ from country to country. Some states sent in expeditionary corps as part of the war on drugs. Others, like Sweden, completely refused any participation. Another observation: the risks that the different contingents are willing to bear in terms of human life are different. So, depending on the nature of the mission and the risks involved, you may find some troops here and others there. In other words, NATO does not know in which direction to turn. Take, for example, the timidity of Germany. This points to a paradox: German is willingly in Afghanistan and is politically more engaged in central Asia than France, but when its troops are sent out on a mission, they insist on the protection of US forces.
Finally, militarily speaking, we are dealing with a patchwork of NATO and allied contingents which are neither equally equipped nor enjoy the same political and operational room for maneuver to carry out all types of missions. In fact, the material means (human resources and equipments) necessary for stabilizing Afghanistan are insufficient.
Q. Why are NATO forces having so much difficulty in the region?
A: I would like to cite this well-known quote from (Marshal) Ferdinand Foch:
Since I’ve been placed in command of a coalition, I have far more respect for Napoleon.You might say that we are collectively disunited. We neither have sufficient means nor a clear idea of what we can do in Afghanistan.
The loss of time since 2001 is the second reason for the difficulties of NATO in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Europeans have decreased their presence around Kabul. On the other, the Americans have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of al-Qaeda, and have often used indiscriminate firepower in the Pashtoon areas of southern Afghanistan. Because of this, the expectations of the Afghani population have been disappointed, especially in the south of the country. This paved the way politically for the Neo-Taliban insurrection. In other words, the West did not take advantage of the opportunity presented in 2002-2004.
Pakistan’s change in attitude should also be mentioned.
Q. How could more NATO support for Pakistan transform things in Afghanistan?
A. We’ve seen that since the autumn of 2006, the Taliban has made tremendous progress militarily and in terms of equipment and training. It seems to be clear that they are getting logistical support from Pakistan. But whether it’s the Pakistani government, the ISI or a laissez-faire agreement between President Musharraf and politico-religious organizations on the other side of the border, it makes no difference. For, historically, it is extremely difficult to stop an insurrection when it has accessible sanctuary on the other side of an international frontier.
Exercising pressure on Pakistan is a very delicate matter, since the country represents a security consideration that goes beyond stability in Afghanistan. The security of the subcontinent depends on proliferation issues and relations with India. The fragility of the Musharraf regime should be borne in mind.
This is why neither the West nor the United States can put very much pressure on Pakistan beyond a certain point. Order must be reestablished in the border regions of Afghanistan, and, at the same time, concessions must be wrested from Kabul, such as recognition of the border with Pakistan (the Durand Line), which Afghanistan has never recognized. This would reassure Islamabad concerning its worst fear, an India-Afghanistan alliance.