How Afghanistan Became a War for NATO

(IPS) – The official line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO command in Afghanistan, is that the war against Afghan insurgents is vital to the security of all the countries providing troops there.

In fact, however, NATO was given a central role in Afghanistan because of the influence of U.S. officials concerned with the alliance, according to a U.S. military officer who was in a position to observe the decision-making process.

“NATO’s role in Afghanistan is more about NATO than it is about Afghanistan,” the officer, who insisted on anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the subject, told IPS in an interview.

The alliance would never have been given such a prominent role in Afghanistan but for the fact that the George W. Bush administration wanted no significant U.S. military role there that could interfere with their plans to take control of Iraq.

That reality gave U.S. officials working on NATO an opening.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)Founded in 1949, NATO’s members collectively account for over 70 percent of the world’s military defence spending.

They are: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Britain and the United States.

NATO’s U.S.-led ISAF mission currently has 140,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, about 100,000 of them Americans.

Gen. James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) from 2003 to 2005, pushed aggressively for giving NATO the primary security role in Afghanistan, according to the officer.

“Jones sold [Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld on turning Afghanistan over to NATO,” said the officer, adding that he did so with the full support of Pentagon officials with responsibilities for NATO. “You have to understand that the NATO lobbyists are very prominent in the Pentagon – both in the Office of the Secretary of Defence and on the Joint Staff,” said the officer.

Jones admitted in an October 2005 interview with American Forces Press Service that NATO had struggled to avoid becoming irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. “NATO was in limbo for a bit,” he said.

But the 9/11 attacks had offered a new opportunity for NATO to demonstrate its relevance.

The NATO allies were opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq, but they wanted to demonstrate their support for stabilising and reconstructing Afghanistan. Jones prodded NATO member countries to provide troops for Afghanistan and to extend NATO operations from the north into the west and eventually to the east and south, where U.S. troops were concentrated.

That position coincided with the interests of NATO’s military and civilian bureaucrats and those of the military establishments in the member countries.

But there was one major problem: public opinion in NATO member countries was running heavily against military involvement in Afghanistan.

To get NATO allies to increase their troop presence in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, Jones assured member states that they would only be mopping up after the U.S. military had defeated the Taliban. On a visit to Afghanistan in August 2004, Jones said, “[W]e should not ever even think that there is going to be an insurrection of the type that we see in Iraq here. It’s just not going to happen.”

Reassured by Washington and by Jones, in September 2005, NATO defence ministers agreed formally that NATO would assume command of southern Afghanistan in 2006.

But conflicts immediately arose between the U.S. and NATO member countries over the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Britain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands had all sold the NATO mission to their publics as “peacekeeping” or “reconstruction” as distinct from counterinsurgency war.

When the Bush administration sought to merge the U.S. and NATO commands in Afghanistan, key allies pushed back, arguing the two commands had different missions. The French, meanwhile, were convinced the Bush administration was using NATO troops to fill the gap left by shifting U.S. troops from Afghanistan to Iraq – a war they strongly opposed.

The result was that one NATO member state after another adopted “caveats” that ruled out or severely limited their troops from actually carrying out combat in Afghanistan.

Even as the Bush administration was assuring its NATO allies that they would not have to face a major Taliban uprising, U.S. intelligence was reporting that the insurgency was growing and would intensify in spring 2006.

Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who had just arrived as commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2005, and newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann were warning Washington that the well-publicised domestic debates in NATO member states over troop commitments were “generating a perception of NATO political weakness”, as Neumann recalls in his memoirs on Afghanistan published in 2009.

Neumann wrote that both he and Eikenberry believed “the insurgents would see ISAF’s expansion and the U.S. contraction as the moment to rekindle the war.”

But Eikenberry assured the news media that the insurgency was under control. In a December 8, 2005 press briefing at the Pentagon, Eikenberry asserted that the more aggressive Taliban tactics were “very much a sign of weakness”.

Asked if he wasn’t concerned that the situation in Afghanistan was “sliding towards an Iraqi scenario”, Eikenberry replied, “[W]e see no indications that such is the case…”

A few weeks later the Taliban launched the biggest offensive since its regime was ousted in 2001, seizing control of much of Helmand, Kandahar and several other southern provinces.

Eikenberry, clearly under orders from Rumsfeld, continued to carry out the policy of turning the south over to NATO in mid-2006. He was rewarded in early 2007 by being sent to Brussels as deputy chairman of NATO’s Military Committee.

Eikenberry acknowledged in testimony before Congress in February 2007 that the policy of turning Afghanistan over to NATO was really about the future of NATO rather than about Afghanistan. He noted the argument that failure in Afghanistan could “break” NATO, while hailing the new NATO role in Afghanistan as one that could “make” the alliance.

“The long view of the Afghanistan campaign,” said Eikenberry, “is that it is a means to continue the transformation of the alliance.”

The Afghanistan mission, Eikenberry said, “could mark the beginning of sustained NATO efforts to overhaul alliance operational practices in every domain.” Specifically, he suggested that NATO could use Afghan deployments to press some member nations to carry out “military modernisation”.

But Canadian General Rick Hillier, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan from February to August 2004 and was later chief of staff of Canadian armed forces from 2005 to 2008, wrote in his memoir “A Soldier First”, published in 2009, that NATO was an unmitigated disaster in Afghanistan.

He recalled that when it formally accepted responsibility for Afghanistan in 2003, NATO had “no strategy, no clear articulation of what it wanted to achieve” and that its performance was “abysmal”.

Hillier said the situation “remains unchanged” after several years of NATO responsibility for Afghanistan. NATO had “started down a road that destroyed much of its credibility and in the end eroded support for the mission in every nation in the alliance,” Hillier wrote.

“Afghanistan has revealed,” wrote Hiller, “that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse decomposing…”

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 4th, 2011 at 8:22am #

    The last sentence says it all. NATO should have disappeared at the end of the cold war and replaced with some sort of European defence system, excluding the US and Canada but including Russia. Eikenberry’s comment about “transforming” the alliance explains it all. Ideally, NATO was to be transformed into an instrument for the defence of Israel but since the “European street” wants none of that, it now serves merely as a legal pretext for keeping US forces and military supplies near to Israel. Hence, the constant attempts to divide and conquer Europe, whether by trying to break up the EU or by hyping a new cold war into existence. Europe must continue to “need” American protection. From somebody or other!

  2. bozh said on January 4th, 2011 at 9:04am #

    the word “insurgents” does not appear under quotes. this means that also Porter calls a pashtun resistor “insurgent”.

    a pashtun who’s fighting occupiers of his land i call “freedom fighter”. i do not, tho, approbate his fight if the fight is for keeping the old social order.

    nevertheless, pashtuns are morally and legally obligated to resist occupation of their lands with any means whatever! tnx

  3. hayate said on January 4th, 2011 at 5:17pm #

    Nato – controlled by the usa. The usa – controlled by israel and ziofascists.

    So the Afghan war criminals at the very top of this ghoulish food chain are majority ziofascists.

  4. mary said on January 17th, 2011 at 2:19pm #

    The mad men cometh… still.

    Republicans want to fight in Afghanistan forever.

    ‘Four freshman Republican senators, including among the most “fiscally conservative” members of the Senate, have concluded a trip to the region. They are now promptly calling for the expensive war to be extended indefinitely.

    This is despite the fact that the Obama Administration’s oft-repeated target dates for beginning of withdrawal (July 2011) and full transition to Afghan control (2014) are not hard deadlines at all.

    John McCormack at the Weekly Standard has been gathering reaction from the senators, Marco Rubio of Florida, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Jonson of Wisconsin, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. All four came back with basically the same message: progress is being made in the war and there should not be even a timeline for withdrawal.’

  5. mary said on January 17th, 2011 at 3:28pm #

    A contributor to Media Lens has noted a few others of like mind.

    Republicans want to fight in Afghanistan forever.

    Posted by Ellie on January 17, 2011, 10:22 pm, so do a few others:

    “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely,” Gates finally said. “In fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”
    NATO chief says forces to stay in Afghanistan to finish job
    NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed to keep the alliance’s troops in Afghanistan for the time needed to finish its mission, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper published on Sunday. .. Rasmussen also stressed that Western forces would not withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, but undertake a gradual process of transferring responsibility for maintaining security to the Afghans as conditions allow.
    Petraeus foresees long haul in Afghanistan

    U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, asked by ABC News whether success over the insurgency could be another nine or 10 years away, answered, “Yeah, again, in some respects, I’d say obviously what took place up up until this point has been of enormous importance.
    Petraeus ‘Doubts’ 2014 Drawdown Date

    Noting that the Taliban remain “resilient” through repeated US escalations of the war, Petraeus told ABC News that he doubted the end of 2014 date and said no commander would ever express confidence in that date.

    Links on {}

  6. hayate said on January 17th, 2011 at 4:00pm #

    “Republicans want to fight in Afghanistan forever. ”

    So do dems. They are just a little less vocal about it and vote the appropriations instead.