Center for Strategic Decision Research


Strategic Concepts for the Iraq War, Conflict in the Middle East & the Global Struggle Against Terrorism

General Gerhard Back
Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe


In the time allotted to me, I hope to provide you with a better appreciation of the contribution we are making in Afghanistan. But as you know, the global war on terrorism is a many-headed hydra, and my topic today, the International Stabilization Force, or ISAF, in only one critical part. Operation Enduring Freedom concentrates on hunting down terrorists in high-intensity war-fighting arenas, while ISAF tends towards the peace support, stabilization, and reconstruction end of the spectrum. Both of these initiatives, however, seek the same result for Afghanistan- namely, nationhood and democracy. As Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Regional Headquarters Allied Forces North, I have operational command of the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan. It is my great pleasure to clarify the role of the NATO force in Afghanistan.

History and Mission

Let me begin by reminding you that, though NATO took over the command of ISF in August of 2003, the International Stabilization Force in Afghanistan was established following the December 2001 Bonn Summit on Afghanistan, which resulted from the U.S.-led coalition engaging in Operation Enduring Freedom in the wake of September 11. It is important to remember that the international community came to be in Afghanistan because of the global struggle against terrorism. The coalition was formed to attack and destroy international terrorism in its adopted heartland and subsequently agreed to address the wider issues of Afghan stability and development, governance and security, and democratization. Its intent was to deal with these issues in a way that terrorist or terrorist-linked movements could no longer find refuge or a base in that country. Therefore, although ISAF's mission is distinctly different from Operation Enduring Freedom's, it is closely linked and seeks to realize its ambitions for Afghanistan. Its Mission Statement includes "Assisting the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA) in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas so that the ATA as well as United Nations Mission personnel can operate." If you keep this Mission Statement in mind, you will see that ISAF enables the effective operation of the ATA and the UN in Afghanistan, a markedly different role from, say, that of KFOR in Kosovo. 

Since December 2001, ISAF has been mandated by the UN Security Council to deploy to the Kabul area; more recently it has also been mandated to deploy to Konduz, north of the Hindu Kush. In the near future, the ISAF's reach will extend to the north, and in the long term may operate countrywide. Indeed one can envisage ISAF fusing with Operation Enduring Freedom throughout Afghanistan, though such an occurrence is still some time off. Such expansion is necessary in order to support the authority of the Afghan Central Government beyond the environs of Kabul; without such support it will be difficult for the government to operate. 

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)

Expansion will take place through the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. Ideally these are conducted by one nation-a lead nation-with others in support, and their principal task is to provide a credible security presence. Such work is achieved through combined military/civilian teams of between 50 and 200 people who operate in a number of key locations across the country. Gradual expansion will permit the ISAF to create a framework of PRTs in an increasingly wider area of Afghanistan. This area, approximately the distance between Warsaw and Paris, currently has no supporting infrastructure and does have significantly challenging topography. The PRTs will bring in additional troops and support, including forward operating bases and forward support bases housing medical facilities. Though we are encountering difficulties in the generation of these forces and equipment, I will not go into the specific problems. The Supreme Allied Commander has addressed that issue, in the full gaze of the international community and the media. In fact, SACEUR and the Secretary General of NATO are currently busy convincing nations of the critical need to provide the tools necessary to do the job, and, importantly, to provide them in a timely fashion. His predicament rather reminds me of the difficulties that Harry S. Truman faced, which prompted his famous quote: ".. I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them..."

Supporting Voter Registration and the Election Process

Once we have created the PRT framework, ISAF will be in a position to take on another important task: supporting the scheduled election process. Organizing the elections is in the hands of the United Nations Mission, UNAMA, as is the voter registration process and organizing subsequent elections. President Karzai requested that NATO/ISAF support the elections process, and we will do so within our means and capabilities. However, preserving a secure environment in which free and fair elections can take place lies with the Afghan security forces. Success of both the voter registration and the election process depends not only on a climate of calm in the country but also on the existence of conditions in which voters can cast their vote freely and fairly. Ultimately this depends on careful and detailed planning and organization, but NATO alone cannot ensure security. Indeed, neither NATO nor ISAF can absolutely ensure security, not because of unwillingness or a lack of capability but because of the constraints inherent in the UNSC mandate. The role envisaged for ISAF is the only role it can play. So through its general military presence in certain key locations-carried out through random patrols, aerial surveillance, intelligence gathering, and political engagement-ISAF will assist in generating the most secure environment possible. Both the Afghan security forces and the UNAMA election officials face a daunting task: to protect and manage approximately 4,300 polling stations in Afghanistan. We will do all that is possible to support this vital activity within the scope of our mandate. 
















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