WASHINGTON - The official line of the International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (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 United States officials concerned with the alliance, according to
a US military officer who was in a position to observe the decision-making
"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 Inter Press Service in an
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 US
military role there that could interfere with their plans to take control of
That reality gave US officials working on NATO an opening.
General 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 US Defense 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 Defense 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 on the US had offered a new opportunity for NATO to
demonstrate its relevance.
The NATO allies were opposed to the US war in Iraq, but they wanted to
demonstrate their support for stabilizing 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 US 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
US military had defeated the Taliban. On a visit to Afghanistan in August 2004,
Jones said, "We 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
Reassured by Washington and by Jones, in September 2005 NATO defense ministers
agreed formally that NATO would assume command of southern Afghanistan in 2006.
But conflicts immediately arose between the US 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 counter-insurgency war.
When the Bush administration sought to merge the US 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 US 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
Even as the Bush administration was assuring its NATO allies that they would
not have to face a major Taliban uprising, US intelligence was reporting that
the insurgency was growing and would intensify in spring 2006.
General Karl Eikenberry, who had just arrived as commander of all US troops in
Afghanistan in 2005, and newly appointed US ambassador Ronald E Neumann were
warning Washington that the well-publicized 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 US 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: "We 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 the US 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 modernization".
But Canadian General Rick Hillier, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan
from February to August 2004 and was later chief of staff of the 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 Hillier, "that NATO has reached the stage
where it is a corpse decomposing"
Gareth Porterr is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.