Center for Strategic Decision Research


Kabul and Beyond

General Gerhard W. Back
Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to speak to you. What I would like to do is provide you with a perspective on the NATO mission in Afghanistan—what we are doing and what it means to the NATO Alliance. 


Let me set the scene. NATO’s circumstances have undergone dramatic changes in the last 15 years. We have moved from defending Europe to acting as a global force for good in a world in which failed or fragile states and non-state actors combine to generate a complex and far less predictable strategic landscape. NATO has had to remodel around this new philosophy; the Alliance of today needs to be flexible and dynamic both in the planning and the conducting of operations. 

The transformation process has promoted a radical approach to altering the way the Alliance is structured, organized, and run. Nowhere has change been more dramatic than in the NATO Operational Command Structure, where the number of headquarters has been reduced from 65 to just 11 and those 11 have been made leaner and more efficient.  

Joint Force Command Brunssum is one of two headquarters that provide the backbone of the operational command structure. My HQ is designed to support NATO’s level of ambition by providing deployable joint command and control capabilities required for operations either by a Combined Joint Task Force or the NATO Response Force, or NRF. The NRF has been embraced as the core of NATO’s ability to react rapidly to meet a range of missions.  


Not surprisingly, operations are my top priority; my headquarters has been in command of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan since August 2003. This work consumes the main effort of the majority of my staff, but we are also fully engaged with the development of deployable forces. This effort involves frequent participation in exercises—those of other commands as well as our own—at both the tactical and the operational levels. Therefore another high priority is to train our own deployable HQ staff so that it is able to command the NRF during our periods of responsibility, the next of which begins in mid 2006. We are already planning for this one-year commitment, which includes a major live exercise to be conducted in Cape Verde to bring the NRF to full operational capability. We also have additional responsibilities, including advancing military cooperation with partner nations. 


Now that the scene is set, let me fast-forward to the present and the reality of life for NATO and its number one operational priority in Afghanistan.  

Consider this:  Less than four years ago, most Afghan people were firmly under the control of ruthless hardliners in a country riven by conflict. Young girls could not go to school. Women were routinely beaten for simply showing their ankles in public. Young men were forcibly recruited to fight on behalf of the Taliban. A democratically elected government, a free exchange of ideas among peoples, and freedom of expression in the media all were inconceivable. 

How things have changed:  On October 9, 2004, despite threats and intimidation by remnants of the hardliners, eight million Afghan citizens cast a vote for their future and democratically elected a president. This was a first in Afghan history, and it proved to be a monumental success. Forty percent of voters were women, an astounding rate that clearly showcased their courage and determination. As President Karzai said during his inaugural speech, “Every vote cast, whether for me or another candidate, was cast for Afghanistan.”  

Much of the credit for this astounding progress goes to the U.S.-led coalition that has carried out a determined campaign for more than three years to eliminate the extremist forces that plunged Afghanistan into chaos and created a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. For the past two years, NATO has also become an active and increasingly more important player. In August of 2003, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, started its operations in the capital of Kabul. In July 2004, as a first step towards gradually expanding its role, NATO took over responsibility for the northern provinces and the associated Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs. Then at the end of May 2005, the ISAF activated a further stage of expansion, taking over the west of the country from the coalition.  

The ISAF’s mission is truly cross-Alliance and multinational, demonstrating NATO’s commitment to global security by engaging nations outside the organization. Today ISAF consists of some 9,000 troops from all 26 member-nations as well as 10 non-NATO countries. 


With the tactical command in theater rotating every six months, my headquarters, through its responsibility for longer-term planning, training, and other activities, provides continuity and stability at the operational level. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams are our active ingredient for assisting the Afghan government in extending its influence and facilitating development and reconstruction. 

We currently have seven PRTs, with two more to follow in July of 2005, and two forward support bases in the north and west of the country. Although there have been critics of the PRT concept, I am absolutely certain that they provide the most viable and economic way for NATO to make a difference in the regions. I believe that it is particularly important that the PRTs are considered by the Afghans to be providing added value, engaging in dialogue with local political leaders, reducing local tensions, and helping to create the necessary security conditions to allow economic development.  

The PRT structure enables lead nations that are responsible for working with the Afghan government to identify priorities and to fund key development projects; the structure also provides the opportunity for others to be involved. For example, Lithuania, which has been a member of NATO for just over a year, has volunteered to lead a PRT at the very difficult location of Chagcharan in Ghor province. 


Our next challenge will be to assist the Afghans in ensuring security for the National Assembly and Provincial Council Elections, which are scheduled for September of 2005. NATO will again bolster security by providing additional forces, both to increase our presence and to provide additional security cover. I have no doubt about the test that these elections present—they are significantly more complex than the presidential elections and are already generating local tensions. However, they are a precursor to success, and they need to happen in a timely fashion to ensure that the Karzai administration is not undermined. 

In parallel with this challenge, we also need to square up to the medium-term aim of taking on responsibility for the rest of the country from the coalition. While the two missions have worked very effectively together, this is not as easy as it sounds. The missions are operating under different mandates and with differing objectives, with the coalition heavily involved in counterterrorist operations. 

However, coordination has been good to date, and NATO and U.S. planners are now working to capitalize on the benefits of synergy between ISAF and coalition missions. They have also been designing a unified command structure for the future, with the aim of NATO taking on the rest of the country probably in 2006, first in the south and then in the east. This step will be an important one for the Alliance, both in terms of philosophy and commitment. A sharply increased force level will be required and political will will be needed for the Alliance to engage more in offensive operations, with the risks that it involves. 
The success of the presidential elections provided some good indications of progress. The fact that the insurgent groups failed to make a significant impact on the elections, despite the threat, indicates that their capacity is diminishing, and I am confident they can no longer widely threaten the country. The main influences on security are now illegal armed groups, criminality, and the all-pervasive narcotics trade. The key regional power brokers have learned that the only way to maintain influence is as part of the legitimate political process and within the law. So we now need to ensure that the lower-level commanders realize the same thing, work that will be aided by the fact that a growing proportion of the public is simply not prepared to tolerate regional and local power brokers who undermine the authority of the central government. 

The key to eventual success is security sector reform, which will provide the means by which the central government will extend and deepen its influence. Such reform is the precursor to the international community’s giving full responsibility for security to the Afghans, and to eventually leaving.  

The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program has been an important element of security sector reform, with the goal of having the national army and police be the only forces to bear arms. At present a large number of former combatants have been disarmed and almost all the heavy weapons have been cantoned, both of which are very promising steps for the security situation and the strengthening of democracy. 

ISAF has provided key support to the DDR program and will continue to do so. The next issue we will address will be the illegal armed groups that are currently outside the DDR process. The Afghan government is increasingly focused on this issue and in turn we are working on how we can best support their effort. 


While great progress has been made in other areas, such as developing the Afghan national army and police forces, there is still a long way to go before the Afghans can take full responsibility for their own security. We need to be cognizant of the fact that the more support we provide in developing Afghan security forces, empowering the Afghans to provide their own security, the earlier we are likely to be able to end our mission.  

In addition to developing security capacity, the international community continues to work with the Afghan government on countering the narcotics trade and on judicial system development and reform. Most people would agree that the drug issue is the most pressing issue confronting Afghanistan today. The country is the largest opium producer in the world and drugs are believed to represent well over half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. The government has taken a very courageous stance in combating this evil and, with international assistance, has set up special police forces that are tasked with drug trade interdiction and eradication. President Karzai has also raised public awareness and has engaged the support of Afghanistan’s religious leaders. But if the state does not firmly impose law and order it will lose the respect of its citizens and cede control to the drug traffickers, some of whom are very powerful. However, there already have been some encouraging early indications that the work is having an effect. Still, we need to be realistic; tackling the drug issue requires a coordinated, focused, and long-term effort by all quarters, both at the national and international levels. 

A key problem of this issue is achieving the right balance between eradication, interdiction, and economic alternatives. It is critical that we develop alternative livelihoods for those involved in narcotics and not try to impose a solution that puts ordinary Afghans in the impossible position of choosing between compliance with our wishes and feeding their families. Eradication of the opium crop without providing alternative livelihoods is a prescription for failure and for alienating the very population we are there to support. 

NATO’s mandate does not give ISAF an active role in interdiction or eradication of drugs, but it does provide for supporting the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics strategy. It also facilitates assisting Afghan institutions and security forces in their long-term efforts to combat this evil. Therefore we must acknowledge the necessity for an overall, internationally recognized counter-narcotics strategy that is both complementary and sustainable. 


Today Afghanistan is struggling to overcome the legacy of 25 years of continuous warfare. There are enormous needs to repair the infrastructure, reconstitute a health-care system, and reopen schools, to name just a few key tasks. But it is important to recognize that many of the problems the Afghans face have been many years in the making. Therefore there will be no quick solutions—this will be a long-term partnership with the Afghans that will require long-term commitment from the international community, both at the governmental and non-governmental levels. 

However, I marvel at what has already been achieved by so many dedicated people, and at the will of the Afghan people to make their country a better place. But we cannot afford to be self-righteous—there are many challenges still to be met and overcome. Success can be achieved only by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with the support of the ordinary people of their country and backed by a resolute international community.  

The mission in Afghanistan represents the first time in NATO’s 56-year history that the Alliance has undertaken an operation outside its geographic region. Indeed, the footprints of Alliance transformation are everywhere in Kabul and beyond—a fact that is nothing less than revolutionary and that points the way for the future of the Alliance. Given my experience with current operations, I believe that in this future, in order to engage in operations with maximum effect, we will need to address many overarching issues. In particular, we will need to shorten the fuse between the identification of an emerging crisis and the delivery of the military force that will provide part of the solution. Solving such issues will signal that the Alliance is moving to the next stage of full maturity. 

Those working in the organization know that we are no longer holding on to old methods and old thinking and are continually seeking to improve. We are also making technological advancements, streamlining operations, creating conceptual initiatives, and developing leadership challenges. As I speak about these dramatic changes, I am reminded of the statement made by the former NATO Secretary General, Lord George Robertson, who said, “This is not your daddy’s NATO.”  The bottom line is that there is no turning back. 






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