Making A Difference for Afghanistan
© 2006 FrontLine Defence (Vol 3, No 4)

Afghanistan is clearly in the news. Recent attacks have prompted a flurry of international reporting that suggests that stability in this war-ravaged country remains illusive despite a significant effort to help this struggling democracy. While this coverage is understandable, what the reporting generally does not show is the progress that is being made.

Interestingly, this volatility comes at a time when NATO has been expanding its peace support operation into the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, which might suggest that this progress is actually seen as a threat to these opposing militant forces.

Why NATO is in Afghanistan in the first place? What does it hope to achieve? What has it accomplished since taking over this operation from the UN in 2003?

Norwegian soldier watches for trouble.

I have visited Afghanistan several times, including late last year, and I have seen the threats and the challenges first-hand. But, with each visit, I have also seen a determined International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), made up of 37 NATO and Non-NATO countries, with around 15,000 troops, that is determined to fulfill its mission of stability and reconstruction despite these attacks.

For three years now, NATO and its contributing nations have been working closely with Afghans to rebuild their country, retrain their security forces and oppose those that are trying to deny this country its right to a brighter future. It is this holistic approach to peace support operations that is the giving the people of Afghanistan a very powerful defensive weapon – hope.

History has shown that progress and peace in Afghanistan does not come easily, not even for a people as strong willed as the Afghans, or an Alliance as determined and as capable as NATO. Not only are environmental and resource challenges hampering progress, there are threats of every kind in this war-ravaged country.

20 Nov 2005 – General Henault represents NATO at Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).

What makes Afghanistan so important that 37 countries are willing to send their soldiers there?

Less than five years ago, Afghanistan was the staging base for many of the ­terrorist attacks that have threatened our cities. Notwithstanding the pain and ­suffering that these attacks have caused, it pales in comparison to the violence and misery that the Afghan people endured while they were being held hostage by the terrorists and other extremists who were taking advantage of this poor and devastated country.

After the attacks on the U.S. in September 2001, the world took Afghanistan back from the clutches of terrorism. The trouble is, there was little remaining of what resembled a country, let alone a democracy.

From NATO’s perspective, the only real way to keep these threats at bay over the longer term was to help Afghanistan get back on its feet and give its citizens something precious and powerful – hope.

French detachment on a surveillance mission along the strategic axis of Kabul-Bagram. (Photo: Étalissement Cinématographique et Photographique des Armées de la Défense)

This is exactly what NATO is doing in Afghanistan, through its ISAF mission, helping the Afghan people to become self-sufficient by providing the security that is allowing progress to take hold.

From regular patrols, to providing security to successful elections, to supporting the reform of the Afghan defence and security sector, and the training and buildup of its security forces, ISAF is a military force that is protecting and mentoring at the same time. ISAF is making a difference by leading Provincial Recon­struc­tion Teams (PRTs) that are working with local population and authorities, as well as with international organizations to assess and improve the situation on the ground in terms of education, health, water, sanitation, and internally displaced persons.

NATO is only one part of this international effort, the UN, many Non-Govern­ment Organizations and the Afghan Govern­ment itself are all involved in this effort. Thankfully we are ­seeing more children in Afghan schools, new infrastructure and a growth in domestic media, all signs of progress worth fighting for.

Soldier makes friends.

Having achieved so much in the calmer regions in the north and the west, NATO is now taking on the challenge of the southern and eventually eastern regions of Afghanistan. Many have questioned whether NATO is capable of fighting its way to lasting peace and stability in all regions of Afghanistan?

I am confident that we will stay the course for two reasons: we, as an Alliance of 26 like-minded nations, and our Partners, cannot let the Afghan people down, having achieved so much; and ­secondly, an unstable Afghanistan represents too great a risk to NATO nations and other world capitals to allow this country to slip back into the hands of the terrorists.

Spanish soldier on patrol.

As Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, I speak on behalf of the 26 Chiefs of Defence that make up this Alliance. When it comes to Afghanistan there, is consensus and determination around the table to continue the fight.

During my visits to Afghanistan, I am reminded of how ­powerful this determination to contribute really is as more and more countries join in this NATO effort. When founding members of the Alliance, like Canada and newer member nations, such as Lithuania, as an example, are proud to send their soldiers to help the Afghan people, despite the risks and the cost, it ­illustrates the depth of our collective resolve to forge ahead in Afghanistan.
The consensus within the Alliance is that in this age of global ­terrorism, one must go farther and farther afield to ­protect our ­citizens and our territories.

 Sending forces to places like Afghanistan is costly and difficult for some NATO nations to achieve. Long distance deployments require considerable military capability and they are difficult to sustain. This is why NATO has been encouraging nations to realign their forces to be more expeditionary.

As the NATO plan progressively expands to cover the entire country, Stage 3 will see it officially take over in southern Afghanistan as of 01 August 06. The Canadian contingent, which had joined American-led "Operation Enduing Freedom" when main efforts shifted south (from Kabul to Kandahar), is expected to return to being part of ISAF.

 Canada, in particular, is highly regarded within the Alliance, not just for the ­professionalism and determination of its deployed personnel but also for the considerable effort that it is putting into increasing the usability and deployability of its forces. In particular, Canada’s recent military acquisitions will build on these efforts and strengthen Canada’s already strong reputation within the NATO Alliance.

 For nations contributing to this global effort, this is a costly commitment. However, to back down from this ­commitment or not invest enough in these vital military capabilities would allow terrorism to take root again in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, and if that ­happens, the cost to all our countries will be much greater.

Formerly Canada’s CDS (2001-2005), General Henault is currently Chair of the NATO Military Committee.
© FrotnLine Defence 2006