On November 16, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted an event to evaluate the dynamics between “NATO and Afghanistan Before the Riga Summit”. Ambassador Robert Hunter, Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation, and Carnegie visiting scholar Frederic Grare, drew on their experiences during a recent visit to Afghanistan as part of a NATO delegation with the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to determine what security challenges exist for NATO and its partners in Afghanistan, as well as for the future functioning of the Alliance. 

In his opening remarks, Ambassador Hunter argued that the focus should shift from the question of whether NATO should have gone to Afghanistan to what it would mean for both NATO and the international community to fail this mission. NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan has created a potential for failure, which has serious implications for the future of the alliance as NATO has not yet failed. What this means is that NATO is obliged to succeed in Afghanistan.

This risk of failure is widely recognized and many wonder whether NATO has gone beyond its area of reach. Ambassador Hunter argued that NATO’s recent involvement in countries such Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur, and Pakistan may illustrate that NATO has already gone outside the territory in which its member countries have a vested interest. While this may be the case, it is clear that these countries remain committed to fulfilling their obligations in respect to securing their own future interests. Countries such as Poland who have benefited from NATO’s assistance in the past are now willing to do their part to ensure the current mission is a success.

Hunter noted that others have questioned the future of the alliance. Doing so is a mistake, he commented, as it is clear that there is a future for NATO after examining at the Afghanistan example. There, all 26 member countries are engaged; including Iceland, who in the absence of a military presence provides necessary medial assistance. The provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) are an example of this collaboration, and speak volumes for what can be done in other areas of the world. This has not gone unnoticed, and has caused the US to continue to push for global partnerships. Such endeavors would increase the engagement of NATO activity in countries that already have robust participation such as Finland, Sweden, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. 

Some challenges, Ambassador Hunter conceded, do exist in Afghanistan. Noting that one quarter of the 40,000 troops in the region are part of American Enduring Freedom and the remaining component are part of the ISAF forces, he argued that this confusing system becomes even more complicated after adding the national caveats, which create a complex matrix that forces commanders to consult rule books to determine when and which countries can complete specific jobs. Although this leads to greater cooperation, as a result of working together to fill the gaps, it creates confusion for the commanders.  Finally, one of the biggest challenges is the six month rotation of military forces and civilians. This rule creates more difficulties as it takes a minimum of two months to learn the regional dynamics before being truly effective. The almost immediate rotation of these troops creates a serious disconnect that needs to be addressed in Riga.

Dr. Grare began his presentation by assessing the military situation. He commented that although  ISAF has won important victories such as Operation Medusa and also succeeded in decreasing the number of casualties, it has not been able to decrease the presence of the Taliban in the South. Grare explained that this should not be interpreted as evidence of any ideological sympathy of the population to the Taliban but simply that people are trying to survive and are waiting to see who will ultimately prevail.

Both Hunter and Grare agreed that it is important for NATO and the allied forces to make a long-term commitment and communicate this pledge to the local population through the use of civilian development. Dr. Grare stressed the importance of extending this work into regions that have not yet seen the benefits of the reconstruction. Without seeing the progress that has been made, these populations may not believe that work is being accomplished, and thus, not see the benefits in actively engaging in the process. Ambassador Hunter noted that the European Union has a comparative advantage in this area, from years of experience with peacekeeping and regional integration, and should be urged to take the lead in this area.

Grare also argued that it is crucial to rebuild the Afghan National Police. While enabling the military forces and civilians to focus on their assigned tasks, instead of toiling with law-related matters, it would also add legitimacy to the central government. Grare posited if not resolved, the disconnect that exists between the local and national levels, more specifically the failure of the central government to reach out to the masses, will create even greater problems in the future including the possibility that ISAF will continue to maintain control, albeit in political vacuum.

Dr. Grare also noted that while drug monitoring is clearly not a responsibility of ISAF, it does impact its operations. The revenue the Taliban receives from this activity enables them to lure the support of government workers, which further decreases its effectiveness. Grare acknowledged that there is not a short term solution to the problem as Afghanistan has been the largest producer of illicit opium. He continued noting that this situation is a byproduct from the anarchy that ensued from the Cold war period, and in order to succeed in substantially reducing the drug production, the state will need to be rebuilt.

Dr. Grare concluded optimistically, noting that there has been some progress. Citing examples such as the increasing number of children attending school, the construction of the airport at Kabul, and a significant investment in industry, he argued that there is still room to win this war. Moreover, the sharp increase in investment shows that there is long term interest and confidence in the country’s future. He added that it is crucial to also invest in agriculture, as it could provide poppy farmers with another form of income that would allow them to move away from the Taliban.

In their closing remarks, Hunter and Grare called for Afghanistan to take center stage at Riga. Ambassador Hunter noted that, as it stands, Riga will likely focus its agenda on the NATO response force, the positive developments in Afghanistan, global partnerships and the involvement of other countries such as Macedonia, Albania and Croatia. Following this set framework would be a mistake as it is important to focus on Afghanistan and have serious conversations on what has yet to be done. Moreover, failing to do so would risk having an effective summit.

Finally, some of the most difficult choices that need to be made at this summit rest in the hands of the European Union. This body needs to make some serious decisions regarding their common foreign and security policy. The stakes in Afghanistan are too high and any missteps would affect NATO and its future.