By Sarah Chayes, the author of “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/07/07):
WHEN things go wrong — touchdown passes are missed, products come out defective, wars are lost — it is typical to blame the equipment, or the help. In the case of the unraveling situation in Afghanistan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has become the favorite whipping boy of American officials and military personnel. NATO countries aren’t sending enough troops, we hear. Those who do arrive are constrained by absurd caveats that prevent them from engaging in combat. NATO lost Helmand Province to the Taliban.
In fact, after watching rotation after military rotation cycle through here since late 2001, I see NATO as an improvement over its American predecessors.
One key difference is NATO’s training program, born of the challenge of gathering troops from different countries, speaking different languages, into a cohesive fighting force. In March, I joined about a dozen civilians who had lived and worked in Kandahar for years at the final training exercise for the NATO officers who recently took over Afghanistan’s Regional Command South. We spent 10 days briefing them, fielding their questions on everything from tribal relations to the electricity supply, eating meals with them and playing roles in a simulation of three days in southern Afghanistan.
“Uh … we’ve got a bit of a situation here,” I heard one of my fellow teachers, an Australian who was a top United Nations security official, say calmly into the phone. He threw me a wink. He was starting the simulation by reporting the sounds of a large detonation and small arms fire. Later, on another line to an officer training to run public information, a sociological researcher played the role of a journalist, her voice incredulous: “Are you sure you want to say that?”
With the help of these seasoned civilians, experienced NATO officers and some Afghans, the new team was rigorously tested on the many aspects of its mission that go beyond combat tactics. Three months later, after these trainees had taken up their new jobs, the training staff traveled to Kandahar to debrief them to learn which aspects of the training had been useful and which needed improvement.
Given the constant disruption caused by short troop rotations, competent training is key to improving officers’ effectiveness as soon as they hit the ground.
The American troops’ training, in contrast, seemed ad hoc, usually carried out by each unit on its own, rather than by a dedicated training staff. And it involved very few civilians, despite the crucial humanitarian and political aspects of the mission here. (I have occasionally been invited to address American officers, but only when a friend in the unit has convinced a commander that I might have something to offer.)
NATO’s second advantage is continuity, despite its multinational makeup. I observed rivalry between American units lead to confusing policy reversals each time new troops came in. The best American commanders were those who understood that Afghanistan is no toy-soldier battlefield, that they would have to bone up on anthropology, diplomacy and civil engineering. But such commanders were rare, and their replacements — seeking to make their own mark — usually undid their work within weeks.
NATO has tried to reduce the disruption of replacing troops and officers en masse. Rotations are staggered. This may cause some logistical headaches, but it reduces abrupt changes in direction.
But if NATO is doing better than the United States, why is Afghanistan doing worse? The answer is twofold. NATO was brought in too late, and under false pretenses.
Within days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO voted to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — its core principle, which states that an armed attack on one member will be viewed by the others as an attack on themselves. Never before in the history of the organization had the principle been activated. The American reaction was thanks but no thanks. Our government was sure we could go it alone in Afghanistan, that allies would be an inconvenience.
In 2003, NATO moved peacekeeping forces into Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan. But not until 2005, when it was clear that the United States was bogged down in Iraq and lacked sufficient resources to fight on two fronts, did Washington belatedly turn to NATO to take the Afghan south off its hands. And then it misrepresented the situation our allies would find there. NATO was basically sold a beefed-up peacekeeping mission. It was told, in effect, that it would simply need to maintain the order the United States had established and to help with reconstruction and security.
In fact, as was clear from the ground, the situation had been deteriorating since late 2002. By 2004, resurgent Taliban were making a concerted push to enter the country from Pakistan, and intensive combat between American forces and Taliban fighters was taking place north of Kandahar. By 2005, top Afghan officials could be blown up in downtown Kandahar without drawing much of a reaction from either the Afghan government or ours. Notorious drug lords governed the three main southern provinces to which we were dispatching our allies. It was the bloodiest and most belligerent situation since the fall of the Taliban.
NATO should have been brought in from the start and given the kind of muscular peacekeeping mission it learned to conduct in the Balkans. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, begged for peacekeepers, spread throughout the country, in those early years when they could still have made a difference.
Having snubbed our allies when we should have accepted their help, and having stuck them with the most difficult, yet most strategically critical, part of Afghanistan, the least we could do now is offer gratitude and support, rather than blame our friends for our own follies.