The Magazine

'Proactive Self-Defense'

NATO takes over in Afghanistan.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By MAX BOOT
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ISAF was born in 2002, when some of America's allies contributed forces to keep the peace in Kabul, while U.S. troops focused on hunting the Taliban and al Qaeda in the southern and eastern provinces. NATO took over ISAF in 2003, and since then its mandate has been steadily expanding. The headquarters compound is taking in more and more personnel from nations as disparate as Germany and Macedonia.

EUROPEAN OFFICERS pride themselves on taking a softer approach to counterinsurgency than the supposedly gun-happy Americans. ISAF troops are supposed to focus on providing security, jumpstarting economic development, and, above all, on facilitating the work of 21 civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams spread across the country. They are not supposed to chase bad guys.

That's all well and good in theory but difficult to implement in practice. What do commanders do if they get intelligence on Taliban fighters gathering a few miles away? Wait to be attacked, or strike first? For American officers it would be a no-brainer. But NATO troops have the difficult task of interpreting rules of engagement laboriously negotiated among 26 nations. They are not allowed to mount offensive operations, but they can engage in "proactive self-defense operations." Meaning what? That will be up to individual commanders to decide.

One can be pretty confident that some contingents, for instance the British and Canadians, will take a broad view of their mandate. Others, however, are likely to take a narrower interpretation, which is why so many Afghan government officials are pleading with U.S. troops not to turn over their areas to NATO replacements. And it is not only Afghans who are concerned: During our visit to Kandahar Airfield, a British officer was overheard berating a Dutch air force officer for limiting his activities to tame convoy escorts and not having the guts to engage in real combat.

There are some 70 separate national caveats limiting what NATO troops can do. Some of these restrictions are relatively innocuous--e.g., troops are not allowed to operate outside of Afghanistan. Others forbid some troops from taking part in combat operations or even from using chemical riot control agents like tear gas. The complete list of caveats is secret--you don't want to let the enemy know what your forces cannot do, not to mention that many European nations would be embarrassed to have the full list of their caveats revealed.

Among the more important restrictions is that ISAF is not allowed to fight drug production and trafficking. Although ISAF can assist Afghan forces in counter-narcotics efforts, they are not supposed to take on these missions themselves. That could be a big problem, because in Afghanistan, as in Colombia, the insurgency is intimately linked with the drug barons. The Taliban made a big show in 2001, their last year in power, of cracking down on poppy cultivation. But knowledgeable observers believe their motive was cynical--to drive up the value of their own opium stockpiles. Today, despite their own restrictive brand of Islam, the Taliban are happy to cooperate with the drug barons, who provide a ready source of funding.

Further funds--as well as base camps for training and recruitment--are available in next-door Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf has occasionally sent his forces at U.S. prodding to bag al Qaeda bigwigs, but he has done precious little to crack down on the Taliban and their ilk--whether because he simply does not exercise any real control over Pakistan's frontier provinces (as he claims) or because his government (or elements thereof) still backs the Taliban as an instrument of Islamabad's influence in Afghanistan. The Bush administration continues to dance a delicate minuet with Musharraf, pressuring him to get tough while being careful not to undermine his authority. The upshot is that the Taliban enjoys an essential prerequisite for successful guerrilla operations--secure rear areas. Just as U.S. forces in Southeast Asia could do precious little about the Ho Chi Minh Trail running through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, so now they can do little about the Islamist supply line running through the Khyber Pass.

This is quite a challenge for any military force, much less one with NATO's limited resources. It's hard enough to get member states to cough up troops; harder still to get are transport helicopters and aircraft, of which there is a notable deficit outside of the U.S. armed forces. And no wonder: Defense spending outside America is anemic. For years, NATO has urged members to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. The actual average, excluding the United States (which spends more than 3.5 percent), is 1.94 percent--and falling. And that figure is inflated by high levels of defense spending in Greece and Turkey, where the armed forces are preparing not for NATO missions but for fighting one another.