The most pressing issue for Nato leaders meeting in Riga tomorrow is how to counter a resurgent and emboldened Taliban, writes Simon Roughneen
After September 11th, 2001, Nato invoked its collective defence provision for the first time in its history. Only now is the alliance that was set up to contain and counter the USSR in Europe engaging in its first ground combat operations.
But Nato is not fighting in Europe: 31,000 troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in the south and east of Afghanistan. Minus the Soviet menace, it sought a new-found purpose to deal with globalised security threats and terrorism, with its lead member, the US, increasingly averse to what it sees as unreliable alliances.
Nato heads of state convene in Riga tomorrow to discuss the future of an organisation that has been experimenting with an “out-of-area” mandate since its 2002 Prague summit. Fifty thousand soldiers serve in operations on three continents: Nato has provided logistical support to the African Union in Darfur and humanitarian relief in Pakistan after the earthquake. Debates about linking security and development aside, Nato’s out-of-area operations are out of context for a military alliance.
But not anymore. While Nato has commanded the UN-mandated stabilisation/peacekeeping force in Afghanistan since 2003, its role altered dramatically in July this year. Then Nato moved into Afghanistan’s south, and then in September, into the east, assuming the lead role in counterinsurgency from US forces.
At the Riga summit, Nato expansion and relations with Russia will be discussed. Other issues on the table include more formal partnership arrangements with extra-European allies such as Japan, Australia and South Korea. Nato members will seek to inaugurate a 25,000-strong Rapid Response Force. This requires contributors to provide set units for six-month periods at a time, for potential short-notice action wherever Nato votes to deploy.
Matching Nato’s global role with a free-standing military outlet means, as assistant secretary-general John Colston said last week, agreeing on “comprehensive political guidance”, thus making official the alliance’s extra-European ambitions.
But the prospect of failure in Afghanistan is the most pressing issue now. Given the entrenched and potent Taliban revival, Nato faces a quagmire. This year has been the bloodiest since 2001. More than 3,000 people and 150 foreign soldiers have died. There have been at least 80 suicide attacks – up fourfold since 2005.
Insurgents have become more aggressive since the Nato expansion, seeking to turn public opinion against the Afghan operation, given that Germany refuses to redeploy troops to counterinsurgency, and after months of acrimonious debate preceding Dutch deployment to southern Afghanistan.
Nato cannot meet the huge reconstruction needs and governance deficits facing donors and the Afghan government. However, these are relevant to the Taliban revival, and for the future of Nato’s mission.
Afghanistan’s opium poppy production will reach record levels this year – over 90 per cent of the global supply and equivalent to 60 per cent of Afghan GDP. This provides hard cash for insurgents and impoverished farmers in the disaffected Pashtun regions that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border.
After Pakistan’s recent deal with tribal leaders bordering Nato’s new eastern Afghan domain, US forces reported a threefold increase in insurgent infiltration into Afghanistan, while the Daily Telegraph revealed in October that Nato’s report on Operation Medusa cited evidence that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies supply insurgents. Expect some Nato allies at Riga to question Bush and Blair’s failure to press Pakistan effectively on this.
The USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and prompted three decades of violence. Great armies have come to grief in Afghanistan, and less-than-great armies could repeat such failure. After visiting Afghanistan in recent days, Tony Blair told the House of Commons: “The credibility of Nato rests on us doing everything we can.” But the Afghan campaign is turning Nato members against each other and the political will needed to defeat the Taliban is absent.
It is mainly the American, British, Canadian and Dutch contingents that are taking the fight to the Taliban. At Riga, resentments will surface against member states that will not fight. In Afghanistan 2,900 German troops are restricted to collaboration in reconstruction work with local government and aid agencies in the relatively stable north of the country. Turkish, French and Italian troops present are not sent to the combat zone.
National caveats, effectively prohibitions on certain types of activity, and the fact that troops answer to political command at home, mean that Nato contingents cannot always act or interact effectively.
In Afghanistan, the problem is this: more troops are needed to fight the Taliban. Otherwise, Nato will not defeat the insurgency or lay the foundations for a stable Afghanistan. And Nato, like Afghanistan, will face an uncertain future.
• Yesterday in Afghanistan Nato forces killed 55 Taliban fighters in clashes in the south, while a suicide bomber killed 15 Afghans, many working for the US military, in the southeastern Paktika province.
Simon Roughneen worked in Pakistan for Goal and his research paper, Nato’s Unfamiliar Role, Afghanistan’s Familiar Situation, will be published by International Relations and Security NetworkShow