When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took command of international forces in Afghanistan last week - though U.S. forces remain - it represented an important step forward in internationalizing the overall problem of Afghanistan, making possible a reduction in the U.S. role there.
A 5,000-strong international peacekeeping force is in Afghanistan. Called the International Security Assistance Force, it consists of German, Dutch, and other troops. In addition, there are some 9,000 U.S. forces still there, largely in the southeast part of the country bordering on Pakistan, independent of NATO command, who continue to pursue Taliban and al-Qaeda elements operating there.
The U.S.-led quest, which also involves Afghan forces, is a continuation of the running war begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. NATO as an organization, now numbering 19 member countries, has taken over responsibility for the multinational force.
The NATO contingent there will be commanded by a German general. Its activities, authorized by a United Nations mandate, are limited to the region of Kabul, the capital, one weakness of the current international security approach to Afghanistan.
For NATO this is new territory, its first undertaking outside of Europe in its 54-year history. Europeans, of course, have never had trouble supporting the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, which they considered a perfectly normal U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Seeking to assure security in Afghanistan, left in disarray at the end of the Cold War with the withdrawal of Soviet forces, is fully consistent with NATO's earlier mission.
For the United States, even though the role of U.S. forces has not yet ended, the expanded NATO role enables America to look at reducing its security presence in Afghanistan, currently a drain on overall use of U.S. forces, strained by the continued maintenance of some 145,000 troops in Iraq. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is currently costing about $1 billion a month.
The Bush Administration's efforts to find troops from other countries to replace U.S. troops in Iraq continue to encounter problems. An enlarged presence of Turkish troops there would risk provoking internal Iraqi political problems, particularly with the Kurds in the north.
Japanese troops raise larger global issues, particularly in Asia where the heritage of World War II lives on. Other countries resist sending forces there out of pique at pre-Iraq war American snubs, the continuing absence of a U.N. Security Council resolution granting legitimacy to an international military presence in Iraq, and the continuing practice of the Bush Administration to limit lucrative contracts in Iraq to billion-dollar American companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel.
The new NATO presence in Afghanistan will encounter immediate challenges to its security function there. As of now, it operates only in the capital, Kabul. The rest of the country remains wide open to smuggling on the Iranian border to the east, control by warlords in the north, narcotics production in the southeast, and what is in effect an ongoing guerrilla war in the south.
If President Hamid Karzai's government is to extend its authority further afield, at least two changes are required. The first is more rapid delivery of more international reconstruction assistance. The second is an extension by the NATO forces of a zone of security within which development and reconstruction can occur. That is a tall order, certainly requiring more than the 5,000 troops NATO now has there.
But the extension of authority and law and order and development and reconstruction are what is required if Afghanistan is not to descend again into the lawless state that produced the Taliban and hosted al-Qaeda pre-2001.