Our NATO allies have stepped up to the plate, unsurprisingly led by one of our staunchest allies, the British.
A British general took command of an expanded Nato force in Afghanistan today, vowing to “strike ruthlessly” against the Taliban as the west’s military alliance prepared to conduct land combat operations for the first time in its 57-year history.
Lieutenant General David Richards, commander of Nato’s international security assistance force, Isaf, based in Kabul, took over a multinational force in southern Afghanistan where British, US, Canadian, Dutch, and other troops face a dangerous mix of Taliban fighters, corrupt officials, opium farmers and drug dealers.
Of course, NATO has had a presence in Afghanistan for some time; the significance of this development, the approval of which I discussed last December, is huge — our allies in the Cold War-era alliance are finally expanding from the relatively safe peacekeeping role into some of the more dangerous Afghan regions.
The importance of this endeavor, both historically and as a test of NATO, should not be understated.
Gen Richards, a veteran of successful peacemaking missions in Sierra Leone and East Timor, is the first British officer to command American troops in ground operations since the second world war. Nato officials have described his task as a vital test, to demonstrate the continuing relevance of an organisation set up in 1949 to fight the cold war.
“We will retain the capability and will to strike ruthlessly at the enemies of Afghanistan when required,” the British general said.
Nato forces are now deployed in northern, western, and southern Afghanistan. By the end of the year, the US wants Nato troops to take over from American ground forces now deployed in the east of the country. That would leave the US in command of its continuing Operation Enduring Freedom, with its special forces and aircraft trying to track down al-Qaida remnants in the mountains bordering Pakistan.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary general, said yesterday: “This is one of the most challenging tasks Nato has ever taken on, but it is a critical contribution to international security, and a demonstration of our commitment to the people of Afghanistan.”
On this blog, I have also repeatedly question the relevance of NATO in post-Cold War times. Believe me, I would be quite happy were my concerns to be laid to rest.
Gen Richards said his new command was “in one sense historic”. He added: “Also it is important for the world that Afghanistan is not allowed to be tipped back to its pre-9/11 state and allow a Taliban lookalike government with its sympathies to come back into power.”
The general continued: “Nato is here for the long term, for as long as the government and people of Afghanistan require our assistance. We are committed to Afghanistan and its future.” He referred to malign forces “perpetuating a cycle of oppression, murder and poverty”.
Gen Richards has not been afraid to speak his mind in the past, notably over arguments between competing foreign agencies in Afghanistan and the role of private security companies. He has also made it clear that Nato forces are short of equipment, including helicopters and medical support.
He will command some 18,000 Nato troops in Afghanistan, including 4,500 British soldiers based in Helmand province, a centre of opium poppy cultivation where the writ of President Hamid Karzai’s central government scarcely runs.
The general’s priority will be to set up “secure zones” in southern Afghanistan and build up the local infrastructure – measures designed to show the local population that Nato troops are improving their life in practical ways, for example through building roads and irrigation schemes.
Luckily, it seems like Gen. Richards is the sort that just may lead NATO to answer at least some of my concerns.
It should be noted that the British, fighting along side the Americans, already seeming to perform well against the Taliban enemy.
Over recent weeks US and British troops, mainly from Third Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, have confronted Taliban fighters and their supporters in a surge of violence that has killed an estimated 700 militants and 19 western troops, including six British soldiers. British commanders have been surprised by what they refer to as the “virulence” of Taliban fighters. They have also expressed concern about their soldiers being overextended in forward bases.
The troops may or may not be overextended. The Taliban may or may not be virulent. One thing is certain: 700-19 is one heck of dominant scoreboard tally.
UPDATE: In the comments, Damian Brooks of Babbling Brooks seemed to believe that I felt that the NATO allies had, to date, not been contributing. That was not at all the impression I meant to convey. I know that NATO has played a large role in the security of the Kandahar area and the training of the forces for the new Afghan government.
No, my post was not meant to ignore previous efforts by our allies; instead, I wanted to point out the historical significance of a Brit being the first to command American forces since WWII and give a blog-pat on the back to NATO for stepping into the fight as an organization. In no way did I mean to short-shrift our allies that were already contributing with precious blood and sweat. Indeed, when the U.S. first proposed an expansion of NATO’s role in Afghanistan to the more dangerous southern regions, I would like to point out to Damian that I blogged that it was several European members that balked at the idea, and I later blogged that it was Britain, Australia and other nations of the Commonwealth, including and Canada, that shortly afterwards proudly stepped forth in NATO’s period of hesitation.
I am glad that NATO has decided to carry a greater burden, but that in no way means I devalue the sacrifices of our friends who don’t need a NATO banner above them to prove their worth.