Center for Strategic Decision Research

Paris '07 Workshop

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan—The Operational Commander’s View

General Egon Ramms

General Egon Ramms
Allied Joint Force Commander Brunssum and NATO Operational Commander for Afghanistan


General Egon Ramms (right), Allied Joint Force Commander Burnssum, with General George Joulwan, former SACEUR.

"Each time we use kinetic military means, we run the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage and we make the task of winning over the support of the local population more and more difficult. Deciding when and how to respond to asymmetric attacks is one of the most challenging elements of this campaign..."

As the acting commander of the NRF8 and the NATO operational commander for Afghanistan, I have a very special vantage point from which to address the topic of this very important event. We practitioners in the realm of international security share a great responsibility to the citizens of our nations as well as the people of the nations in which our forces are deployed. How well we do our jobs will have a lasting impact on the lives of generations to come. For NATO, how skilfully my colleagues and I implement the decisions of the North Atlantic Council will also determine whether NATO itself—an institution created nearly 60 years ago—can adapt to the changing environment we now face.


          The part of NATO that I command has responsibility for all of Afghanistan. For those of you not familiar with military terminology, my role as the operational-level commander places me between the in-theatre commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General (U.S.) Dan McNeill, in Kabul, and the Supreme Allied Commander, General (U.S.) John Craddock, at SHAPE. A third U.S. four-star admiral overseeing the activities of the separate U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is also involved. Keeping a European view of the situation within NATO is also my responsibility, which I take quite seriously and which I feel serves an important purpose.

          So my first conclusion is that the NATO command structure has demonstrated the flexibility necessary to meet the challenges.       

          The second question raised by the Afghanistan mission is whether the internal organization of the ISAF mission is correct. At the strategic level, SHAPE responds to the decisions of the political level and provides strategic advice to that level. My headquarters, Joint Force Command Brunssum, comes next and is tasked with translating the broad strategic guidance from SHAPE into operational tasks. Brunssum also develops the operational plans and the overall campaign plan for the ISAF mission and provides any support needed between manning and transportation for ISAF in Afghanistan.

          Next in the chain of command is ISAF headquarters in Kabul and the forces of ISAF throughout Afghanistan. Whereas Brunssum looks 12 to 18 months into the future, ISAF is focused on the here and now and on the next few months. The very important tasks of ISAF are managed by General McNeill, an extraordinary officer with extensive experience in Afghanistan. General McNeill is supported by a multinational staff. Below ISAF we have five regional commanders and 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

          The operation in Afghanistan is a very complicated one, requiring each level of the chain of command to perform its unique tasks. We each depend on each other, but we must not duplicate each other’s efforts. In such an operation, it is unfortunately inevitable that bad things happen—casualties—to friendly forces and civilians, and collateral damage and accidents must be minimized.

          So my second conclusion—which you may also take as a recommendation—would be that the NATO structure is well suited for the kinds of operations we are performing in Afghanistan, so long as each level keeps its focus on its unique and important responsibilities and ambassadors do not deal with tactical issues.


The Operation Plan for ISAF has held up pretty well, but a plan cannot be a static thing, no more than political guidance can be static. Because opposing forces are not static—they are dynamically adjusting their strategy and tactics all the time—we must not be static either. Our operations must anticipate the opponent’s next moves and pre-empt those that would give him an advantage. Indeed, we must stay several moves ahead of the creative and determined opponent or opponents whom we face.

          In the case of Afghanistan, our opponents have chosen to escalate their violence and use terrorist tactics against the civilian population. Suicide attacks and use of IEDs have increased. This has forced ISAF to also use a broader spectrum of means to combat the attackers. However, we face a difficult choice in doing so. Each time we use kinetic military means, we run the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage and we make the task of winning over the support of the local population more and more difficult. Deciding when and how to respond to asymmetric attacks is one of the most challenging elements of this campaign and one that we are learning about while we are conducting the mission.

          The picture I have drawn of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan underscores the importance of the dynamic process of sustaining the political consensus behind NATO’s ISAF mission. Why is this critical? Because, as the situation in ISAF today clearly illustrates, the demands for resources for any mission will require the full support of all the participants. ISAF is too large, too complex, and too demanding to be left to just a few members of the Alliance. The NAC’s political decisions must be backed by commitments of human, materiel, and financial resources from all the member-states. I find it a little embarrassing that some non-members of NATO, for example, Australia and New Zealand, are doing more in ISAF than many member-nations of the Alliance. In my mind, this is a sign of a political process in need of some attention.

          The result of the reluctance of nations to fully support the ISAF mission has practical impact on the ground. The shortages of helicopters and other key enablers in ISAF are no secret. The persistence and severity of these shortfalls are increasing the risk to our soldiers. We are putting our soldiers in the position of being told to do a dangerous job but being denied the training, equipment, and resources to do it. This is the situation in which we find ourselves today. So my third conclusion is that while I recognize that the way forward at the political level is sometimes difficult, it must remain dynamic and forward-looking. Most important of all, political decisions must be backed up by all the participants with the means to carry out those decisions. Again, I think NATO’s existing structures are capable of carrying out that task but there remains much to be done in this area.


          One final word on resources has to do with burden sharing and burden shifting. In Afghanistan we have seen that the demands of the geography and the nature of the operation are beyond the capabilities of many of the Allies who voted for the mission in the first place. Only a handful of nations have the training, equipment, and resources suitable for use in Afghanistan. These deficiencies reflect decades of stagnant defense budgets, some failures to plan properly, and some reluctance to modernize forces, thereby making them less useful—in general, a rather widespread failure to invest in the tools needed to address the current threats, not to mention emerging threats such as cyber-attacks like those recently experienced by Estonia.

          All too frequently in Afghanistan today we encounter sophisticated IEDs, but only a handful of nations have any counter-IED expertise, training, or equipment. We encounter suicide bombers, but only a few nations can provide actionable intelligence to address that threat. We engage complex targets requiring precision and video surveillance, but, again, only a few nations can deliver those capabilities. The solutions to these shortcomings will take time, but they must not become an excuse for inaction and their absence must also not become a reason to do nothing. ISAF needs more helicopters, but nations whose helicopters are unsuited for use in Afghanistan could still provide other critically short assets, perhaps an infantry battalion without the helicopters. A nation that cannot supply UAVs could still provide trainers for the Afghan National Army. Many ISAF requirements have remained unfilled for months, and most are not high-technology requirements that only a few nations can meet. So this issue of force generation is one that I would have to say is not yet responding to the changed threat environment we face today.


          To this point I have described a NATO system that is fundamentally sound but which seems lately to be faltering in some key areas. That is not to say that the ISAF mission itself is endangered. Our operations in Afghanistan in the past year have succeeded in placing the opposing forces under great pressure. In places, Afghan citizens are responding with an increasing willingness to cooperate with ISAF—as we, with our Afghan partners, demonstrate the ability to sustain a security presence in a given location, the people have begun to show their support for ISAF and the Afghan government and against the radical opposing elements among them. This is critical to our success—we must gain and maintain the support of the people.

          Toward that end, we have been successful in eliminating many top opposition commanders and other leaders and in inflicting significant losses on the opposing forces when they made the mistake of confronting our forces directly. We have made a great deal of progress in improving security in the most heavily contested areas in the south and east. Our casualties have been high, it is true, and I regret each one individually. But the price we have paid has not been in vain and we all should keep sight of that fact.

          However, the ISAF campaign is now moving to a critical phase that requires a better understanding of the task before us and a renewed effort by the member-nations. As the NATO Secretary General has correctly stated, and as everyone at this workshop well understands, the stabilization of Afghanistan will not be achieved solely by military means. The threat to Afghanistan’s stability today derives from where we started. In December 2001, Afghanistan was a failed state that harbored a large terrorist infrastructure that had been ruled by a radical fundamentalist dictatorship. Every measure of wealth, education, and human welfare placed Afghanistan at or near the bottom. Hunger was the norm. But the international community has done much to minister to this very sick patient and since 2003 NATO has expanded its role to reach the current level of support for restoring security.


          Today, Afghanistan is not a failed state. It has an elected president and parliament, a growing economy, and an improving infrastructure. But it also has an active insurgency. Why? I believe it is not so much because the radical Taliban and other opposing forces have become so strong, but because the government of Afghanistan remains so weak. This is something for which the international community bears some responsibility.

          Reconstruction has taken too long. Too much development assistance has been wasted and too little attention has been paid to developing a competent, honest, and responsive government and to developing Afghan human capacity. Even today, there is no lead nation for training Afghan civil service workers.

          But what do these failings have to do with NATO? Indeed, a few nations have raised this very question in the political discussions that occur in Brussels. The argument is made that NATO is, after all, only a military alliance. It is said that NATO lacks the expertise or the skills to address the shortcomings of governance and economic development. These are 100%-correct observations. I have no economic planning staff in my headquarters, no one capable of training lawyers and judges, no banking experts, no agronomists, no urban planners. There is no way around these limitations. With proper support from the nations, I can provide the 20 or 30% of the solution to Afghanistan’s problems that relate to security and military matters. But who will provide the other 70 or 80%?

          Let me offer the opinion of a simple soldier. As the operational commander, I have the task of bringing security to Afghanistan—a necessary but not sufficient condition for everything else that the international community is trying to achieve. The Riga Summit Declaration stated the situation much better than I could do. It said, and I quote, “Today’s challenges require a comprehensive approach by the international community involving a wide spectrum of civil and military instruments. . ."

          From the operational perspective, what this statement means seems quite clear; however, how to bring it about is another matter. To me, the work being done by ISAF is an integral part of the comprehensive approach. The strengthening of Afghan security with NATO and Afghan forces is gradually bringing the security needed to permit the other requirements to be met. I can even go a step further and say that if I had the resources I have asked for, I could support some of those people and institutions that might provide the additional elements of the comprehensive approach that are beyond my capabilities.

          For example, I might find that a good governor is unable to extend his reach in his province due to a key road that needs to be secured, or because he lacks communications or occasionally needs a helicopter to get to remote areas. Perhaps a team of engineers needs to survey the snow cover to determine whether a valley is threatened by flooding. Or maybe a medical training team needs security to train a group of midwives. These are things a well-resourced military force could provide in support of the comprehensive approach. We could help strengthen governance and demonstrate the ability of the government to deliver services to its people. These clearly non-military tasks would be supported by ISAF but not provided by ISAF.

          Another example of how ISAF might support the comprehensive approach involves intelligence. Suppose an area is assessed by intelligence and through the personal involvement of the PRT is ready to shift allegiance to the government, but it needs better security to allow engineers to feel safe enough to begin reconstruction efforts. ISAF could target that location not with 500- pound bombs but with a security advisory team to show the villagers how to improve their own security. Again, the reconstruction would be left to the experts, but ISAF could enable those experts to do their work by enabling the Afghans to create the necessary security conditions.


          At a higher level, the task of organizing a comprehensive approach in Afghanistan needs to find a sponsor and a home. Is this a task for ISAF? Is it a military task? I say, clearly not. Should it be done by the United Nations? I think it should. The mandate exists and recently UNAMA has shown greater interest in cooperating more closely with ISAF.

          If the U.N. stays away from dangerous provinces because it fears for the safety of its staff, this is the wrong approach. ISAF must help the Afghan National Security Forces protect U.N. field offices in dangerous locations since this is precisely where the U.N.’s presence is most needed. Likewise, the U.N. must be willing to co-locate with a PRT or other ISAF field installation if that is the only viable option. Again, ISAF can play a supporting role, but must not step into a lead role in areas for which we lack the necessary skills.


          Is what I am describing simply a naïve and idealistic dream? I am certain that it is not because I have seen it being done today in Afghanistan. Once again it is the Americans who are leading the way. The United States has put enormous effort, huge amounts of money, and its best people into Afghanistan. The U.S. has suffered the most combat casualties and losses of equipment, yet it has sustained its effort over many years. I am very appreciative of the U.S. commitment and would like to see other nations make a proportionate level of effort. Soldiers of the (U.S.) 10th Mountain Division recently completed their extended 16-month tours of duty in Afghanistan—which greatly exceeds the four-month tours of duty of many ISAF soldiers, who have a fortnight's leave halfway through. The soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division did an excellent job, too, especially in regard to winning hearts and minds, reconstruction, and development. During a recent visit to ISAF’s Regional Command-East I had the opportunity to assess the work of MGEN Rodriguez in RC-S and his extremely able team, particularly a task force commander named Colonel Nicholson. It was there, a few weeks ago, that I saw the comprehensive approach in action.

          While the debate continues in Brussels about whether the comprehensive approach should be pursued in NATO operations and how to do it, men and women in Afghanistan are simply doing it. Combat operations, Special Forces missions, psychological task forces, broadcasting, reconstruction and development, quick impact projects, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, U.S. and other nations' aid projects—all are woven together like a handsome Afghan carpet in a very impressive way. Civilians and military members work together harmoniously and with great dedication in a well-conceived and coordinated counterinsurgency effort. Americans, and Allies, are working with Afghan leaders, elders, and the general population in a very effective way. It is something everyone here would do well to see for themselves. It will give you hope, as it did to me, that it is possible to bring all the complex pieces of this campaign together where it matters most, at the village, district, and province levels.

          One thing the Americans are doing that should serve as a model is their placing emphasis on improving the quality and availability of good governance in their area of operation. Leveraging their access to vast resources, PRT and Task Force commanders spend most of their time working with Afghan counterparts and civilians to address local needs. Their approach is to use minimal force when force is needed, and to conduct most operations partnered with Afghan units. In doing so, they are gradually building Afghan capacity with an eye to a decreasing and less visible ISAF role in the foreseeable future. To be sure, the area of operations is still dangerous and hotly contested, but it is not a barren battlefield. Rather, it is an area in which the people are becoming hopeful.


          My final note is this: The international community has much to be proud of in Afghanistan and we should feel satisfied with how far we have come. At the same time, Afghanistan was a terrible mess when we arrived and many of its deficiencies are not susceptible to quick solutions. By deciding to hand over responsibility for all of Afghanistan to NATO, the Alliance has taken a step into the unknown.

          In doing so we have revealed some of NATO’s shortcomings but, in my view, no fatal flaws. By recognizing at this stage that the task before us demands skills and resources that NATO does not have—and should not have—we have identified the way forward. Now we need to shelve the esoteric debate about whether the comprehensive approach is a good thing and how it should be defined and simply move on to its implementation as best we can. We do not have time for philosophical contemplation. We have a model that seems to be working well and that I am sure we could enhance with ideas from other nations currently operating PRTs and forces elsewhere in Afghanistan.

          What the Afghan people want—and what our publics want—is progress toward achievable goals. I believe with the proper support of the members of the Alliance, the many other non-NATO nations already engaged there, and those nations still considering joining this very honorable effort, we can be successful. But the road to success must be travelled together with the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces. We in ISAF and NATO have to enable the ANSF to do their work and the AFG government to take responsibility. Those are the big tasks we need to fulfil before we can step back to the second line, which is the prerequisite for later withdrawal. We cannot leave 70% of the work to be done in Afghanistan undone. That is the reason I do not use the phrase “exit strategy."

          For my part I intend to ensure that my headquarters and ISAF and its soldiers meet every operational demand of this mission at the highest professional standard, with the urgency and dedication that this important task deserves.

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