Even more, NATO is preparing to assume the lead security role in all of Afghanistan this fall, absorbing the remaining U.S. troops into its ranks and thereby increasing the size of its force. But experts anticipate that the road ahead will be a rocky one, thanks to an especially aggressive insurgency, a tattered economy and a sprawling drug problem.
Created in 1949 to contain the spread of Communism across Europe, NATO has embedded itself in war-torn Afghanistan, its first mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region — and perhaps, say some experts, a demonstration of its larger goal to become a more powerful global influence.
“For those idealistic and ambitious European countries who want to see NATO develop as the most powerful global alliance, which can take on the problems of the world and help solve them without necessarily depending on the Americans, Afghanistan presents a golden opportunity to test NATO’s resolve,” wrote Pakistani Ahmed Rashid in a BBC column last winter.
NATO, in 2003, took over command and coordination of the International Security Assistance Force, “a coalition of the willing deployed under the authority of the U.N. Security Council”, to support the fledgling new government in Afghanistan by providing a safe environment for free elections, spreading the rule of the law and reconstructing the country, according the NATO.
Initially, the ISAF was assigned to secure just the capital Kabul, but gradually NATO forces expanded operations to other parts of the country, including the more peaceful western and northern provinces. Now, NATO is stretching southward and expecting to double its forces there to more than 18,000.
NATO intends to employ an “ink-spot” strategy of establishing zones of security in which locals can live and work freely.
The zones of security, set up by Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are designed to allow more rapid rebuilding, Lt. Gen. David Richards, NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, told Time magazine in early July.
“Those who are not in the zones will be saying to the so-called Taliban and others, ‘Look at the roads, look at the construction, look at the micro power projects that are being brought in rapidly,'” Richards said.
“The aim,” he added, “is that both physically and psychologically these zones of security are spread ineluctably and at some point are joined.”
The security force in the south will be led primarily by U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers.
But even as the NATO forces move into the region, another 10,000 American troops will work separately from the alliance, continuing their hunt for the Taliban, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other operators of terrorist activities.
But as the force moves into the areas of Afghanistan where just recently Taliban forces briefly took control of three towns, the security forces will face an array of new challenges.
The Taliban, nearly five years after being ousted from power by an U.S.-backed air and ground campaign, continue a highly formidable insurgency effort. In the spring, Taliban guerillas crept into southern Afghanistan through Pakistan, attacked foreign soldiers and tried to resume control of numerous districts. But the insurgency has had a high price for the Taliban. According the Economist magazine, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the last two months, most of them Taliban militiamen.
Ahmed Rashid wrote in a July Washington Post op-ed that the Taliban offensive in the south and the counteroffensive by NATO troops “has escalated into a full-scale war, with a dozen attacks every day and 700 lives lost since mid-May.”
Experts say the Taliban is getting its suicide bombings and road-side bombs financed mostly through drug trafficking.
“Opium poppy production, which totals 4,100 metric tons a year, accounts for a huge share of the Afghan economy — and of the Taliban’s operational fund,” said Slate magazine’s Fred Kaplan, who was in Afghanistan in June. “If a drug dealer isn’t one of the insurgents, he’s often coerced into giving them a slice of the revenue.”
According to the U.N. 2006 World Drug Report, 90 percent of the world’s opium poppies are produced in Afghanistan.
The problem, experts say, is the drug trade serves as a majority of the income for many Afghanis, making it difficult for them to combat the growing trade.
Richards said the focus at first will be on developing a police force, rather than eradicating the poppy fields. “You will not see any NATO troops lopping off poppy heads. … It may be that money is better spent today on building up a police force, rather than just eradicating, so that next year the police will be in a position to deal with it,” he said.
Other factors are working against security efforts. Forty-percent of the country is unemployed, Ali Jalali, former interior minister of Afghanistan, told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in May.
In addition, Afghanis “have no more electricity than they did when the U.S. came in,” Barnett Rubin of New York University also told the NewsHour.
“They are frustrated with the slow pace of development,” he said that the time. “They had high expectations in 2002 after the downfall of the Taliban.”
“Afghanistan [has] received far less funds for reconstruction than many other nation-building efforts around the world, including Kosovo, including East Timor and former Yugoslavia,” said Jalali.
Nonetheless, Afghanis depend on the coalition forces to secure and rebuild their country. “[The Afghanis] realize that, only with the presence of the U.S. forces and the international community, the country can be assured that stability will return,” he said.
And NATO is determined to succeed, analysts say.
“NATO has bet the bank on Afghanistan, and failure there could be fatal blow to the alliance and to the future of multinational peacekeeping,” Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution wrote in the Jan. 8 International Herald Tribune. “More important, it could be a fatal blow to a country that deserves better after 30 years of war.”