NATO's mission in Afghanistan

Farooq attended the 2012 NATO leaders summit in Chicago representing the Department of Defence. Farooq is a public servant working in the Department of Defence's International Policy and Strategy Group focusing on Afghanistan. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Masters in Counter-Terrorism Studies from Monash University.


The decade plus mission in Afghanistan led by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) first major operation reaching beyond its European backyard.  Securing Afghanistan has become a priority for the alliance in its effort to tackle the spread of global terrorism. 

Afghanistan will require significant support from the international community for the remainder of this decade at least.  Failure to stabilise Afghanistan is likely to lead to broader instability in the region. This could allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for al Qaeda. This is predominantly why success for the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan is vital. 

Long-term success in Afghanistan will not, however, simply come from the swift toppling of the Taliban regime, which has evidently supported al Qaeda and its affiliates.  This will be marked as a significant achievement, but success in Afghanistan overtime will also require the implementation of a genuine political strategy and Afghanistan will need to address the many challenges it faces today, including in areas of development and gender equality.  This should be coupled with the training and development of a capable and efficient Afghan security force that is able to provide stability for the people of Afghanistan.  

Since President Obama’s decision to employ the current counterinsurgency strategy and send in a 30,000 surge force to support those troops already on the ground, there has been enough evidence to suggest that the strategy will succeed despite some setbacks.1The NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan will succeed because the mission will have achievable standards and benchmarks.  It will not be possible to address all of Afghanistan’s issues before security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, but NATO will achieve its main goals (i.e. degrade the insurgency, target al Qaeda and place Afghan forces in the lead in a responsible manner). 

This short paper will attempt to outline how NATO will succeed in Afghanistan and explore what mission success is likely to look like in that country. 


The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan was the NATO’s first operation reaching beyond its European backyard.  NATO’s primary objective in Afghanistan is specific: to enable the Afghan authorities to provide security across the country and to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be used as a training ground for terrorists groups such as Al Qaeda.   

NATO’s goal in Afghanistan is not limited to fighting Al Qaeda and its affiliates through military force alone.  It includes training and developing elements of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to ensure that they are in a position to defend their own country.  The goal also extends to degrading the insurgency, which has sheltered terrorist groups and fuelled the fire of instability across Afghanistan.         

After a decade of sustained military presence in Afghanistan, the transition of security responsibility from NATO – ISAF led operations to Afghan forces is fast approaching.  As endorsed by the NATO Heads of State / Government at the December 2010 Lisbon Summit, this transition should occur by the end of 2014.  At Lisbon, NATO and the Government of Afghanistan signed a partnership declaration, entailing NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan.  This commitment will be revisited at the upcoming NATO – ISAF Leaders Summit in Chicago in May 2012 where Heads of State / Government will consider post transition options and commitments to Afghanistan.   

In the lead up to the Chicago Summit and the 2014 transition timeline, many questions are being asked by analysts and foreign policy enthusiasts regarding the mission in Afghanistan.  A key issue that has remained persistent is whether NATO will achieve success in Afghanistan and ultimately leave behind an Afghan force that is capable of sustaining the gains made across security and stability.   

NATO will need to be able to claim “some form of victory” in order to defend its credibility across the globe, and a key issue will be whether the Taliban will be able to operate freely once NATO has withdrawn from Afghanistan.2 This achievement or ‘form of victory’ by NATO, however, depends on how “success” is defined (i.e. success in the short-term of degrading the insurgency or the long-term view of solving the many issues that Afghanistan is currently facing). 

This short paper will attempt to argue that the NATO alliance will succeed in Afghanistan.  Leading up to the period of transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces NATO has set a criterion for what mission success looks like in Afghanistan.  The benchmarks set by NATO are realistic and will facilitate a responsible exit strategy.  NATO is unlikely to solve all the issues in Afghanistan (including corruption, human-rights issues and gender equality to name a few), but it will achieve the specific goals which it has set: to degrade the Taliban insurgency, train the ANSF so it can take the lead in combat operations and ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe-haven for al Qaeda. 

Defining success in Afghanistan

Over the last three years progress in security across Afghanistan has continued at a steady pace. ISAF has placed tremendous pressure on the insurgency, forcing many senior Taliban commanders to escape across neighbouring Pakistan.  The southern districts and provinces of Afghanistan, including Uruzgan, Helmand and Kandahar province (renowned once as the Taliban heartland) have now been cleared.   ISAF, in partnership with elements of the Afghan forces, also continues to take direct action against the narcotics trade that fuels insurgent activities.  ISAF and Afghan forces have continued to find countless caches of explosives, guns and supplies that the insurgency relies on to carry out attacks against coalition and Afghan forces.  These efforts have had clear effects on the Taliban since the launch of the counterinsurgency strategy in 2009.3 

Despite gains in the security front, progress on a political settlement and the ongoing issue of governance seems to be less promising.  It is for these reasons that experts and analysts are at odds over NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and its likely outcome.  According to Bowman and Dale there are two distinct groups in the debate of what success in Afghanistan entails.  One group focuses on the short-term goal of defeating the Taliban regime and handing security responsibility back to the Afghans.  The second group views success in Afghanistan in the long-term.  They identify the ongoing issues that Afghanistan has faced over the thirty plus years of civil war, displacement, soviet invasion and occupation, which has left the country and its people in chaos and uncertainty.4This group identifies these reasons as the basis for why NATO will not achieve success in Afghanistan because it neither has the resources, capacity or political will to come up with a long-term solution for Afghanistan. 

Kagan and Kagan, who have contributed significantly to the debate of what constitutes success in Afghanistan, appear to be more aligned to the short-term goals.  They argue that success in Afghanistan is both the establishment of a political order and security situations.  Success in Afghanistan requires an indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring and capable (without any great assistance from coalition forces) of preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe-haven for transnational terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.  It is this narrowly-constrained objective that NATO is likely to achieve in Afghanistan in order to support their national security interests.5 

In order to determine whether NATO will be successful in Afghanistan we need to, however, examine closely NATO’s strategy.  When we do so it is evident that NATO’s mission is not to overcome the thirty plus years of challenges which the Afghan people have faced.  Rather, it is to achieve specific benchmarks and goals in order to give Afghans the best chance possible to sustain stability and peace in their country in the long-term. 

During a recent address from the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, President Obama reaffirmed what the US and its allies are trying to achieve under the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan.  In his address, President Obama referred to five key objectives that will complete the mission and end the war in Afghanistan: 

  1. Transition the lead for combat operations to Afghan forces across the country by end 2013 and continue the reduction of troops at a steady pace; 

  2. Build the ANSF up to 352,000 strong and sustain this limit for the next three years; 

  3. Build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, ensuring that cooperation includes commitments to combat terrorism and strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions; 

  4. Pursue a negotiated peace process with the Taliban in coordination with the Afghan government, encouraging those who want to be part of Afghanistan’s future to renounce violence, abide by Afghan laws and break ties with al Qaeda; and 

  5. Build a global consensus to support peace in the South Asia region.6

Over the last three years ISAF has notably succeeded in most of the key objectives which President Obama referred to during his recent address from the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.  This progress is very likely to allow NATO to achieve success and reach its objective of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

Australia’s role in Afghanistan as a Key non-NATO Ally

Australia’s contribution to Afghanistan is part of its comprehensive approach to supporting global security and Australian national security by countering terrorism and supporting efforts to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe haven by al Qaeda and its affiliates.  Operating under the ISAF banner, Australia is the biggest non-NATO contributor to the mission in Afghanistan.  Around 1550 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel are based within Afghanistan as part of Operation SLIPPER and about 800 deployed across the broader Middle East Area of Operations. 

Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan is aligned with the ISAF strategy aimed at degrading the insurgency, supporting the growing capacity and capability of the ANSF, and facilitating improvements in governance and development.  Its mission in Afghanistan broadly consists of three elements: 

  1. Training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan province so that it can assume the lead security responsibility.  

  2. Disrupting insurgent networks in cooperation with the Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF partners; and

  3. Capacity building through civilian reconstruction efforts to deliver better governance, basic services and economic opportunities for the Afghan people, particularly across southern Afghanistan.  

Australia has made clear that it expects to maintain a presence in Afghanistan in the long-term, potentially through training, military advisers, capacity building and development assistance and a Special Forces presence.  During a recent speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on 17 April 2012, Prime Minister Gillard affirmed that Australia will support the long-term development of the Afghan government, economy and institutions.  It will do so by remaining committed to Afghanistan for the next decade at least. 

Both the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence have assured the Australian public that progress is being made across Uruzgan province (where the 1550 ADF personnel are based in Afghanistan).  In his most recent update to Parliament, the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith MP, said that Australian forces continue to make progress in training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army to ensure that it can assume the lead security responsibility by 2014.  Australia is also contributing significantly to Special Forces operations, with Australia now being the third largest contributor of Special Forces in Afghanistan.  Through these operations Australia continues to work alongside their Afghan partners to disrupts and degrade the insurgency.   

Australia’s contribution to the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan remains significant, noting that its forces are operating in a southern province which was once deemed to be a Taliban stronghold.  Australia appears to be on track to fulfil its mission to see the security responsibility for Uruzgan province being transferred to Afghan forces.  Prime Minister Gillard has committed Australia to Afghanistan beyond transition and for the next decade at least.  Australia will contribute US$100 million annually for three years from 2015 as part of efforts to help sustain and support ANSF beyond the transition process.  Its engagement as the biggest non-NATO contributor to the mission will ensure that Australia’s enduring alliance with the US and its key allies continues to grow.     

Degrading the insurgency 

Success in southern Afghanistan is a key (but not entirely sufficient) condition for security across the rest of the country.  The Taliban in Afghanistan primarily consists of Pashtuns from southern ethnic groups7.  Their homelands are primarily in the provinces of Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Zabul.  Kabul and its immediate environs, along with the inhabited areas east of Kabul around the Jalalabad Bowl are also major areas that Afghanistan must hold once coalition forces drawdown.8 

Following the insertion of the US 30,000 surge force and the new counter-insurgency strategy the Taliban have continually lost ground and failed to counter the gains made by ISAF and its Afghan partners.  Together ISAF and Afghan forces have capitalised on the operational failures of the insurgency’s spring and summer ‘fighting season’ campaign, preventing the Taliban to regain momentum during the fall and winter.9As the Taliban have lost ground, ISAF and Afghan partners have continued to expand security gains, while at the same time engaging local populations and communities to improve development and promote education. 

Such developments, coupled with targeted operations against insurgent leaders and commanders, have severely degraded the insurgency and its freedom of movement.  The continued pressure has decayed any real structure which the Taliban may have operated under across Afghanistan.  It has limited them to high-profile attacks and assassinations, including the unfortunate murder of then High Peace Council Head, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September 2011-an attack that could potentially end any desire from Northern Alliance figures to broker with Taliban remnants.   

Taliban are likely to expand its asymmetric operations as ISAF and ANSF operations continue to suppress them.  From all accounts given by ISAF commanders, it appears that NATO will succeed in achieving one of its key mission objectives: degrading the insurgency to a level where it cannot operate with any real effect. 

Attack and devastate al Qaeda

President Obama’s recent address from Afghanistan on 1 May 2012 marked the one-year milestone of the death of al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden.  The death of bin Laden represents a major chapter in the decade long war in Afghanistan.  President Obama described it as “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s (US) effort to defeat al Qaeda.”10   

Following bin Laden’s death, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Forgh Rasmussen, reaffirmed that NATO allies and partners will continue their mission in Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism.11Rasmussen’s statement confirmed again the importance of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.  Part of this objective is to attack those who have clearly protected al Qaeda members operating in and the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. 

Bin Laden and his supporters could not have functioned as they did before 2001 without the active support of Taliban leaders and the Haqqani network.  The Taliban and Haqqani fighters protected bin Laden and assisted him and his comrades to generate recruits.  They also facilitated al Qaeda’s freedom of movement across the region and helped strengthen the terrorist network’s personal resilience12.  The strong affiliation built between bin Laden and Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, was deep.  This become even more evident after bin Laden’s death, with recent media reports claiming that documents found in the house where bin Laden was killed showing a close working relationship between the then top al Qaeda leader and Omar.  The documents also reveal frequent discussions between bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri (current al Qaeda leader) and Omar regarding joint operations against NATO and Afghan government officials.13 

The close affiliation between the insurgency in Afghanistan and al Qaeda members reveal that it would be highly unlikely to deny safe-havens to terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan without employing a counterinsurgency strategy.  NATO’s counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan is linked to its primary objective of devastating al Qaeda.  NATO and its allies are likely to continue-for the next decade at least- to successfully conduct operations in Afghanistan against al Qaeda. 

Transiting lead security responsibility to Afghan forces

A consistent theme presented by President Obama and other coalition leaders has been the argument that nations will not abandon Afghanistan, but at the same time ensure that they do not stay in Afghanistan “a day longer then required.”14Key to the Afghan strategy has been the plan to build and train elements of the Afghan forces to allow them to take the lead role in combat operations by the end of 2014.  There is no doubt that in the long-term Afghanistan needs a solution that is owned by its own government and people.  The transition of security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is a key part of this strategy; the ANSF will be the cornerstone of long-term security and stability in Afghanistan. 

President Obama recently announced that the ANSF will continue to surge this year and will peak at 352,000.  The Afghans will sustain that level for three years and then reduce it over time as appropriate.15According to a recently released report on progress in Afghanistan by the US Department of Defence, the ANSF are ahead of schedule to achieve this end-strength of 352,000 troops, including subordinate goals of 195,000 soldiers and 157,000 police by October this year.16 

NATO expects to transition full security responsibility to the ANSF by the end of 2014, as agreed in Lisbon in 2010 during a NATO leaders’ summit.  Already half of Afghanistan is under the control of the ANSF and on 13 May 2012, President Karzai endorsed the third tranche of provinces and districts to commence the transition process.  This will see 75 percent of the country under Afghan control by mid-2013.  It would be unrealistic to assess that transition of security to Afghan forces will be without its challenges.  There is no doubt that the ANSF will also confront challenges after 2014, just as they do now, including in areas of leadership, attrition, logistics and procurement.  Despite polls indicating that the Afghan National Army (ANA) continues to grow both in size and public esteem,17 issues of corruption and the influence of criminal networks remains of concern.18These issues are worrying for NATO and could potentially pose a threat to the security transition plan.   

The Taliban insurgency is also unlikely to have been defeated by end-2014, noting its ability to escape across neighbouring Pakistan.  It will however continue to be degraded as a result of the ongoing pressure applied by ISAF and Afghan partners.  ISAF’s transition strategy will ensure that security responsibility is handed over to indigenous forces in a responsible manner and only once ANSF are deemed ready to lead combat operations.   

The transition strategy is a process, not an event, and will require sustained effort from ISAF partners.  The end of 2014 marks the period where, for the most part, coalition forces would leave Afghanistan.  However, the US and its key allies will remain engaged, either through Special Forces operations or other means, for the long-term.  They will do so to ensure that they can succeed in devastating al Qaeda and its affiliates.   

Persistent Challenges

Despite clear progress in the security front, there are still a number of challenges ahead for Afghanistan.  Kabul is often accused of protecting its own interests and lacking in ability to reach out to its rural population.  The Afghan government and its armed forces constantly face issues of corruption, illegitimacy and human rights violations.19Two other issues are significant: the lack of improvement in governance and Pakistani safe-havens used by insurgents.  


The Pakistani government remains persistent that it has made great sacrifices in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Pakistan has conducted significant military operations over the past few years in the border region in Afghanistan (Buner province, Swat valley, South Waziristan), and has suffered many casualties during these operations.   However, there is no doubt that insurgents have safe havens in the Afghanistan / Pakistan border areas that they rely to regroup and plan attacks against NATO forces and Afghan partners. 

The current NATO/ISAF strategy focuses on attacking the insurgent sanctuaries across the Afghanistan / Pakistan border.  However, the durable solution would be to take action on both sides of the Durand Line where insurgent sanctuaries remain.20This is why the role Pakistan employs will be key to the long-term success in Afghanistan, and why the international community will continue to encourage the Pakistani Government to do all it can to deny safe havens to extremist groups. 

Another pertinent issue is the closure of the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication as a result of the November 2011 cross-border incident that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.  The closure has resulted in thousands of ANSF equipment being backlogged and the issue is only likely to heat up as the 2014 transition of security responsibility timeline approaches. 


The capacity of the Karzai Government and its ability to effectively serve its people remains a sticking point.  There are a number of reasons why governance seems to be lagging behind gains made in security and stability, including widespread corruption and uneven spread of power among judicial branches. Although Afghan government agencies seem to be working closely to address ongoing issues, the setbacks in governance and development continue to obstruct Government processes.  This will require a solution that is owned and processed by the Afghan government and its people. 

Another issue has been the alleged misrepresentation of Pashtuns within the Afghan Government.  Current government structures are perceived to be running contrary to traditional Pashtun standards of having relationships between local communities and the central government.  This perceived imbalance of power continues to divide the southern Pashtuns from the central Kabul government.21Overtime these issues will require an Afghan solution to enable long-term stability for the country and its people.  

Recommendations to the Government of Afghanistan

As outlined above, long-term success in Afghanistan will not be achieved from military force alone.  Overtime Afghanistan will require a genuine political strategy and its Government will eventually need to address ongoing challenges with minimum support from the international community.  Some key recommendations to the Afghan Government include: 

  • Ensuring ANSF are trained in all aspects of rule of law, including appropriate detainee management practices; 

  • Ensuring the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police receive appropriate training in community policing; 

  • Investing further in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program (which aims to bring former fighters who renounce violence, break ties with terrorists and agree to abide by the Afghan Constitution peacefully back into their communities).  Greater emphasis should be placed to resolve grievances, ensuring that those who join the program do not return to fighting; 

  • Tackling the endemic corruption problem through an appropriate, balanced and realistic approach.  Greater emphasis should be given to preventative measures such as making sure that government processes and systems are working sufficiently well to reduce vulnerabilities to corruption; and 

  • Increasing government authority and activity across rural areas and provinces, including in the south and east of Afghanistan.      


Success in Afghanistan for the long-term may require a strategy beyond the current ISAF counterinsurgency plan.  It is important to note, however, that long-term success requires an Afghan solution that is owned and governed by the country’s own people.  Often critics and analysts are quick to label NATO’s mission and strategy for Afghanistan as a failure, concluding that NATO will not succeed in Afghanistan.  What is important to note is that NATO has set a criterion for its mission in Afghanistan and it will succeed because it will meet its benchmarks: to degrade the insurgency, target al Qaeda and transition security to the Afghans in a responsible manner. 

In the long-term Afghanistan will continue to face challenges.  Today’s Afghanistan is after all the product of a thirty plus years of civil conflict, war and displacement, and the long-term problems of the drug trade, corruption, illegitimacy, development and gender equality will need to be addressed.  NATO’s success in degrading the Taliban, ensuring that al Qaeda does not spread its influence across Afghanistan and building a capable Afghan force by end-2014 will give the Afghan government and its people a good starting point.  For the first time in a long time Afghanistan’s future will be handed back over to its own people.  What they make of it remains to be seen. 


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Chaudhuri, Rudra and Farrell, Theo, ‘Campaign disconnect: operational progress and strategic obstacles in Afghanistan, 2009-2011’, International Affairs, Vol. 87(2), 2011. 

Dorman, A, ‘NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit: A Chance to Ignore the Issues Once Again?’, International Affairs, Issue 88, 2012, pp 304.   

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