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NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance

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Publication Date: April 2009

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33627

Topic: International relations (International and regional organizations)

Coverage: Afghanistan


The mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan is seen as a test of the alliance's political will and military capabilities. The allies are seeking to create a "new" NATO, able to go beyond the European theater and combat new threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Afghanistan is NATO's first "out-of-area" mission beyond Europe. The purpose of the mission is the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. The mission is a difficult one because it must take place while combat operations against Taliban insurgents continue.

U.N. Security Council resolutions govern NATO's responsibilities. The NATOled International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) faces formidable obstacles: shoring up a weak government in Kabul; using military capabilities in a distant country with rugged terrain; and rebuilding a country devastated by war and troubled by a resilient narcotics trade. NATO's mission statement lays out the essential elements of the task of stabilizing and rebuilding the country: train the Afghan army, police, and judiciary; support the government in counter-narcotics efforts; develop a market infrastructure; and suppress the Taliban.

Although the allies agree on ISAF's mission, they differ on how to accomplish it. Some allies do not want their forces to engage in combat operations. None wants to engage directly in destruction of poppy fields in countering the drug trade; how to support the Afghan government in this task -- largely through training the police -- is proving to be a difficult undertaking. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal and criticism of U.S. practices at Guantanamo, the allies are insisting on close observation of international law in dealing with prisoners taken in Afghanistan.

ISAF has proceeded in stages to stabilize the country. In Stage One, ISAF took control of Kabul and northern Afghanistan. In Stage Two, ISAF moved into western Afghanistan. Stage Three, in the still restive south, began in July 2006. Stage Four began in October 2006, and ISAF now covers the entire country. ISAF's principal mechanism for rebuilding Afghanistan is the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). PRTs, composed of military and civilian officials, are charged with extending the reach of the Afghan government by improving governance and rebuilding the economy. There are significant differences in how individual NATO governments run their PRTs.

Most observers predict that ISAF's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan will require five years or more. An exit strategy has multiple components: suppressing the Taliban; rebuilding the economy; and cajoling Afghan leaders to put aside tribal and regional disputes and improve governance. U.S. leadership of the alliance as well as NATO credibility are at issue. The allies are sharply critical of aspects of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, and sometimes specifically its NATO policy. U.S. leadership in Afghanistan may well affect NATO's cohesiveness and its future. This report will be updated as needed. See also CRS Report RL30588, Afghanistan: PostWar Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman.