Afghanistan: violence inaugurates NATO expansion

This brief analysis of the challenges facing the expanded NATO mandate in Afghanistan sheds light on the real politics of the “cartoon jihad”—obviously, the Danish cartoons have been seized upon as a symbol and crystalization of a much wider set of greivances, which may vary from country to country but generally have to do with a sense of national humiliation. Afghans have bitter memories of the Soviet occupation, and even if they are happy to see the Taliban gone they are going to resent the increased NATO presence. The inter-related challenges NATO faces include popular unrest, Taliban insurgency (especially in the south), continued internecine warlord violence (especially in the north), and the potential for internationalization of the conflict, with US ally Pakistan ironically serving as a Taliban guerilla staging ground and Iran viewing the Western troop presence on its eastern border uneasily. From the (State Department-funded) Radio Free Afghanistan, Feb. 13:

Afghanistan: The End Of NATO’s Honeymoon?

by Amin Tarzi

Ongoing violent protests in Afghanistan against the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper culminated on 7 February with an attack targeting a NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Maymana, the capital of the northern Faryab Province. While the information on which side started shooting remains vague, at least four Afghan protestors were killed and some 20 others — including five Norwegian troops — were injured in the melee.

Norwegian Defense Ministry spokesman Commander Thom Knustad has described the attempt by the protestors to enter the military compound as “an attack on a NATO base in Afghanistan.” And NATO officials have said the Norwegians acted appropriately and, under the circumstances, praised them for the restraint that they showed.

Common People Protest

The fact that the attack against a NATO base — in what is one of the safer areas of Afghanistan — was carried out not by a band of insurgents or terrorists but rather the local population should bring the countries contributing troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) back to the drawing board regarding their long-term plans for Afghanistan.

NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in December formally endorsed an expansion of NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. The revised operational plan for ISAF — known as “Stage 3 expansion” — provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country.

The next stage of that plan is the expansion of ISAF in 2006 to six south-central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul. As part of the expansion, ISAF is expected to grow from its current strength of 9,000 soldiers from 26 NATO and 10 non-NATO countries to 16,000 troops — with most of the reinforcements coming from Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

ISAF’s expansion has been hailed as a sign of commitment by NATO to Afghanistan’s long-term stability and has been deemed an essential factor in its transformation to a fully- functioning nation-state. However, the vague mandate of ISAF, the limitations imposed on its operations based on national caveats, and the failure of the long-standing Washington hope to combine the commands of ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition forces, could spell trouble for the West’s greatest military alliance in its first test outside of the European theater.


NATO’s overall policy in Afghanistan is to conduct stabilization management rather than managing a crisis. Militarily, ISAF is mandated to conduct “stability and security operations” in coordination with Afghan national security forces and to provide support to Afghan government programs to “disarm illegally armed groups.” However, it is not clear whether ISAF is authorized to use force if such an approach is adopted by Kabul. Technically, under the terms of the new Afghanistan Compact signed on 31 January in London mapping out the next five years for Afghanistan, Kabul is tasked with disbanding all militias by 2008.

Whereas NATO has yet to be tested in restive southern Afghanistan where the threats are much greater and the need for coordination more critical, the “attack” on the ISAF base in Maymana must have brought the message to countries contributing NATO troops that the Afghan mission may involve crisis management, not just stability and security operations.

Faryab is a province where the Kabul government’s direct control is viewed as tenuous. Faryab is controlled by one of the more powerful warlords in Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has his own militia and is engaged in a low-level struggle with a rival warlord, General Abdul Malik.

What took place in Maymana on 7 February — whether a genuine expression of anger by a mob or an opportune situation for a domestic or foreign spoiler to pursue its agenda — could very well spell the end of NATO’s role as bystanders in Afghanistan’s crisis.

Beyond the crisis over the cartoons, NATO should expect to be in the thick of volatile situations triggered by a domestic dispute or even a neighbor of Afghanistan. Iran, for example, could find it convenient to harm those countries which are working with the West to resolve Tehran’s controversial nuclear program by using Iranian allies inside Afghanistan to spoil NATO operations there.

Nostalgia buffs will find this one quaint:

Russian Defense Chief Hails Soviet ‘Heroism’ In Afghanistan
Speaking at a ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 14 February that while there have been “repeated attempts” to “play down the heroism of the servicemen who fought in Afghanistan,” he and the other heads of the Defense Ministry regard such attempts as “immoral,” Russia’s RTR television reported. Ivanov, while giving awards to former Soviet soldiers, said that some 3,000 orders and medals will be awarded to those veterans who, for various reasons, have not received their awards. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and withdrew its troops in 1989, by which time the Soviets lost an estimated 15,000 troops while nearly a million Afghans were killed.

Don’t forget that leading elements of the anti-war movement in the United States were hailing the Red Army in Afghanistan in the ’80s.

See our last post on Afghanistan, and the cartoon crisis.