Nato’s two-fold task in Afghanistan

The military dimension is only one part of NATO’s work in Afghanistan in support of ANSF

On Tuesday 2 December, during a NATO meeting held in Brussels, the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that NATO would keep in place its “Resolute Support” training mission in Afghanistan throughout 2016. Precisely, it will maintain in the country up to 12,000 troops – of which 7,000 from the US and 5,000 provided by NATO and its allies.
Moreover, NATO discussed on an extension of the financial support to the Afghan National Security Forces. According to what decided in Chicago in 2012, in fact, the current package of financial aid should end in 2017, but on Tuesday Gen. Stoltenberg announced the launch of a campaign aimed at raising 3 billion euros for keeping the program in force over the biennium 2018-2020.

The decision taken by NATO to extend its training and financial support to Afghanistan has come only two months after President Obama, on 15 October, found himself forced by events to postpone that plan of withdrawal that he had promised since the beginning of his mandate, and that he had hoped would be his last and most positive legacy in foreign policy. Thus, instead of drawing down to 5,500 the number of American troops in Afghanistan, the current level of 9,800 will be maintained through 2016.
As well as President Obama’s, NATO’s decision is the result of major security concerns. The past year has indeed been one of the bloodiest ones for the country in terms of terrorist attacks, with the Afghan Forces still too weak to counter-attack the Taliban effectively and to curb their advance, and the Taliban proving an offensive capability that they hadn’t shown since 2001 and that culminated in the (temporary) conquest of Kunduz in October.
Despite the dramatic improvement and numeric growth the ANSF have known, the country’s overall climate is still dominated by insecure, violence and instability as it was fourteen years ago.

NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, in fact, goes back to 2001, when in the aftermath of 9/11 – and in a moment of unprecedented fear – the UN Security Council authorized NATO to intervene in the Taliban-led country that had provided bin Laden with a safe haven for five years.
On 20 December 2001, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) – made up of over 58,000 militaries from 40 different countries – became operative in Kabul, with the objectives of keeping the capital Taliban-free, training the regular Afghan Army, and supporting Karzai’s newly appointed government. Two years later, ISAF activity was extended beyond Kabul and remained active in various regions of the country until December 2014, when the mission was terminated. With the cessation of ISAF, its role was taken up by Resolute Mission, that seeks to enable the ANSF to provide security across Afghanistan autonomously.

If the intervention in Afghanistan was begun in 2001 under the banner of counter-terrorism and with the declared objective of defeating the Taliban and supporting Afghan Forces in their fight against them, then the attacks of 2015 are the proof that leaving Afghanistan now would mean abandoning a national security system that is not ready yet to sustain on its own the Taliban wave of terror and violence. It would mean abandoning to itself a country that hasn’t won yet its harshest war and hasn’t defeat yet its worst enemy.

NATO’s decision to extend its commitment in Afghanistan, then, cannot but be welcomed in the current security environment.
However, a point has to be made. For this protracted presence to be effective and meaningful, it is necessary to go beyond the pure military training, equipping and financing, and focus on a crucial but often forgotten element: the delicate and complex relationship between Afghan Forces and Afghan people – a relationship still too weak and too easily exploited by the Taliban to play their game.
NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, therefore, is two-fold: support on the military level and support on the civilian level.

On the military level, technical support, equipping (especially of the Afghan Air Force, which – despite being potentially crucial in the fight against the Taliban – is the least developed), training (of soldiers, of police forces and pilots), sensitization against desertion and education against corruption are of paramount importance to help the ANSF to sustain a Taliban offensive that not only has caused in 2015 the highest number of victims over the last decade, but has expanded beyond the borders of the southern provinces where those attacks used to be focused.

A lot of work, though, has to be made on the civilian level too.
One of the key-points of the Taliban’s strength, in fact, is that their activities are not limited to the battleground, but involve many sector of public interest such as education, economy, justice and health.
In many areas where the Taliban have been able to secure a steady presence and a direct control, they have provided to the population an alternative “shadow government” and alternative institutions that create a support basis of which the official government in Kabul and the ANSF pay the price.
This is particularly true in peripheral provinces, such as Kunduz. Here the ANSF has traditionally have a limited presence, and this has inevitably contributed to weaken in the eyes of the local population the legitimacy of an Afghan Army and an Afghan Police that was never able to provide security in a constant way. Such a lack of trust in the regular armed forces, has been easily exploited by the Taliban, who presented themselves as the only security providers and delegitimized the central government in Kabul by building madrassas and hospitals and by contributing to the locals’ economic activities. (At this respect, it’s emblematic the capacity of the Taliban in the South to exploit the unpopularity with which the government’s plan of poppy eradication was met, by siding against it and sparing to farmers in the provinces under their control the costs and the troubles of investing in new crops).
The Taliban have thus been able in many parts of the country to increase their credibility and legitimacy with local communities at the expense of the government.

Addressing these problematics is no less a challenge than dealing with the military component, as it requires to take into account complex dynamics at cultural, social and tribal level.
A good starting point, though, to increase the image and therefore the legitimacy of the Afghan Forces in the eyes of the population is to involve more – and more decisively – the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police in activities of public interest. Building a positive relationship between those forces and the population is a necessity that goes beyond regional, ethnical and tribal lines and that has to start from a direct engagement in the provision and protection of public services. Far from being involved in exclusive military operations, Afghan armed forces should actively take part in the building and functioning of institutions such as schools, religious centers, public offices, hospitals, polling stations…in order to appear as providers of stability and order as they should in any functioning society.

In this field, NATO can give its effective contribution by using its expertise in dealing with delicate civil and social realities, so as to create a bridge between a highly disillusioned Afghan population and armed forces that have to perceive their role not only in military terms but have to see themselves (and be seen) as forces that work alongside people in all sectors of every-day life.

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