The Magazine

'Proactive Self-Defense'

NATO takes over in Afghanistan.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By MAX BOOT
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IT HASN'T GOTTEN AS MUCH INK as Iraq, but violence in Afghanistan has been up sharply over the past year. U.S. and Afghan forces suffered more casualties in 2005 than in any year since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and there has been no slackening in the first six months of 2006. Suicide bombings and sophisticated roadside bombs, once limited to Iraq, are appearing in Afghanistan with disturbing regularity. The Taliban are becoming bolder. So are their narco-trafficker allies. The poppy business is booming, accounting for more than a third of the country's gross domestic product. (Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the source of over 80 percent of the heroin consumed in Europe.)

The picture is not unrelievedly bleak. Afghanistan has low inflation and a stable currency. And it has a popularly elected government--not only president Hamid Karzai but also a National Assembly that has proven surprisingly assertive in challenging Karzai's court appointments and spending plans. By all accounts, most Afghans support their democratic leadership and do not want to see a return to the bad old days when even kite-flying was a crime. But they also want and need security and economic development, neither of which the government is capable of delivering.

The Afghan government is as dependent on foreign aid as any on earth: Kabul raised only $269 million in tax revenues last year, while spending $561 million. International donors contributed another $2 billion. Karzai's grip has expanded but remains tenuous, with warlords in control of large swaths of the countryside. The police are noted mainly for their corruption, which is not surprising since many have not been paid in months. The best hope for the country is the growth of the Afghan National Army, but so far it has only 30,000 troops, and they are incapable of operating without extensive support from the United States and other foreign sponsors.

Enter NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has already taken control of the relatively peaceful northern and western provinces of Afghanistan. In August it will expand its control to the tumultuous south, long a Taliban stronghold. In the fall, if all goes well, NATO will take over the eastern provinces too, along the border with Pakistan. When that happens, some 7,000 U.S. troops will fall under NATO command and the alliance will control the entire country, although around 10,000 American soldiers will continue to operate under U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Is NATO up to the challenge? Can it pacify this sprawling nation of deserts and mountains, populated by 31 million of the poorest people on earth? Will it have the resources and the will to confront homicidal religious fanatics and ruthless drug lords?

A whirlwind trip to Kabul and Kandahar, organized by NATO for a group of policy analysts and journalists, did not leave me sanguine about the answers to those questions. I did come away with admiration for the nations that are willing to undertake such a daunting task. The most gung-ho are Britain, Canada, and, surprisingly, the Netherlands, which together are sending 6,700 troops to the south--more than the United States deploys in that region. Romania, Estonia, and Australia are contributing smaller contingents, totaling under 1,000 soldiers.

In Kosovo and Bosnia, NATO troops were strictly limited to "peacekeeping." That is also the role of the NATO troops deployed to Kabul and the northern and western areas, where the Taliban have little support. But it's a different matter in the Pashtun-dominated south. Here, a war is raging, and NATO is getting into the middle of it.

A visit to Kandahar Airfield, the hub of operations in the south, found breakneck expansion underway. U.S. cargo aircraft, fighters, Predator drones, helicopters, Dutch Apache gunships (and soon F-16s), British Harrier jump jets--all maintain a frenetic pace of operations. One officer told us this was the busiest single-runway military airfield in the world. More runways are under construction, as are hangars, barracks, and recreation facilities. Two concrete plants located on the base are constantly churning away, and large numbers of fuel tankers are making the drive from Pakistan.

Similar expansion is going on inside the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) headquarters compound in downtown Kabul--located, inauspiciously enough, on the site of a cantonment occupied by the British army during two famously unsuccessful imperial forays into Afghanistan in the 19th century. ("Third time lucky," joked the British brigadier who runs the base.)