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FOR FREEDOM TO ENDURE
- Nato's role in Afghanistan has major political implications

When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 no one could have foreseen that, in a little over a decade, Nato would establish a military presence in that forbidding country. Yet for the past two years a Nato-led operation has been in progress in Afghanistan, in parallel with the US army's Operation Enduring Freedom. The gradual expansion of the Nato role in a neighbouring country has gone virtually unnoticed in India.

Nato stumbled into its role in Afghanistan. Immediately after 9/11, for the first time in its history, the alliance invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is the core article providing for a collective response by the allies when a member state is subjected to an armed attack. In effect, this amounted to an invitation to the United States of America to call for Nato military action against al Qaida sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Had this invitation been accepted at the time, it would have ended an ongoing debate within the alliance on the proper geographical limits of Nato's 'out-of-area' operations. During the Cold War years, it was assumed that Nato operations would be confined to Europe. Article 5 is applicable only in the event of an attack on an ally 'in Europe or North America'. (After Portugal's entry into Nato, India sought and obtained a clarification that the article did not apply to the Portuguese colonies in India.) However, Nato has gradually been re-inventing its role since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Washington has pressed the view that, because of the global nature of current threats such as terrorism, Nato operations could not be confined to any specific geographical limits.

Most Europeans, on the other hand, were unprepared to contemplate military operations outside the continent and its periphery. In the wave of sympathy and solidarity after 9/11, the Europeans were ready to drop their objections and join forces with the US in a Nato response to the attack. Washington, however, did not want to tie down its hands with the joint decision-making procedures envisaged by the alliance. It instead chose to embark on a unilateral self-defence operation. Operation Eagle Endeavour is so far an exclusively American initiative, not a Nato action. Acting alone, American forces overthrew the taliban regime and decimated al Qaida.

Following these initial US successes, an International Security Assistance Force was formed with a United Nations mandate to help the new Afghan regime in maintaining law and order in the capital, Kabul. This force was largely drawn from Nato countries but it did not have any formal links with the alliance. ISAF has a limited peace-keeping mandate and is not involved in the peace-enforcement actions of Operation Eagle Endeavour. Thus, US forces alone have borne the brunt of the heavy fighting against the taliban and al Qaida.

Within Nato, the sense of unity and solidarity produced by 9/11 was soon dissipated and deep divisions rose to the surface over Iraq. When Washington decided to dispense with a security council mandate and launch unilateral military action against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, France and Germany led the protest against US unilateralism.

The alliance was in disarray. The need of the hour, therefore, was a symbolic demonstration of its unity. The Nato secretary-general at the time, Lord Robertson, conceived the idea of converting ISAF into a 'Nato-led' operation in order to display the cohesiveness of the alliance and its capacity for joint action. The proposal offered an easy way of papering over the cracks in Nato and was readily accepted by the allies. In August 2003, ISAF became a 'Nato-led' operation and was thus brought under the umbrella of the alliance. In a purely operational sense, this was simply a case of a shop putting up a new signboard. Few changes were involved in ISAF actions or procedures.

From a political point of view, however, the decision was truly historic. It laid to rest the question of whether Nato operations should extend beyond Europe and its periphery. As Lord Robertson pointed out, 'Six months ago this would have been inconceivable.' Nato had made a massive leap forward into central Asia.

Having arrived in Afghanistan, the allies came under sustained American pressure to expand their operations outside Kabul and progressively take over US role in the entire country. With varying degrees of reluctance, the allies have agreed to at least partly accommodate Washington's concerns though they remain opposed to sending their troops on high-intensity combat missions. Nato-led ISAF has taken a number of incremental steps to expand its operations beyond Kabul. In December 2003, it took over command of the provincial reconstruction team in Kunduz and in the following year it set up similar teams in three other provinces in northern Afghanistan. In the second phase, ISAF moved into western Afghanistan in 2005, taking over or establishing provincial reconstruction teams in the provinces of Herat, Farah, Ghor and Baghdis, and establishing a logistics hub in Herat. ISAF now provides security cover for half of Afghanistan.

However, the areas where ISAF operates are those where conditions are relatively peaceful by Afghan standards. Moves now contemplated are of a far more difficult character. Nato is now planning to move into Pushtoon-dominated areas in the south. The debate over a Nato role in the east, the most problematic area, is still continuing. Moving into this area would involve ISAF not only in peacekeeping but also in a difficult peace-enforcement exercise. It would have to be prepared for heavy fighting in difficult terrain against a determined and elusive enemy. Not surprisingly, the European allies have deep misgivings about the proposal to merge ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom. Yet, there is persistent American pressure for a merger by early 2006. A compromise outcome is likely to emerge before the end of this year.

Whatever the final outcome, Nato's expanding role in Afghanistan will have major political implications. First, the debate over the geographical limits of the alliance's operations has already been laid to rest. Nato operations will no longer be restricted to any geographical region. Indeed, the very concept of an operation falling 'out-of-area' will cease to apply.

Second, Nato's new role will further enhance the role of its central Asian 'Partners for peace'. Nato will look to them for logistical facilitation of its military operations. Moreover, it will require their assistance for promoting the political goals of the operations. Since many of the ethnic groups straddle the border, the central Asian countries are in a position to exercise some influence on important Afghan groups.

Third, as it moves into the south (and, even more so, if it enters the east), Nato as an alliance will have to establish close contacts and regular consultations with Pakistan. Islamabad's cooperation will be essential for the success of Nato initiatives in the Pushtoon-dominated south and east.

Finally, the alliance will be conducting military operations in central Asia, in an area adjoining Russia, China and India. All these countries share a common interest with Nato in eradicating international terrorism, assisting reconstruction and establishing stability in Afghanistan. At the same time, each of them will want to carefully track Nato activities to make certain that there is no collateral damage to their own interests. The Nato-Russia Permanent Joint Council provides Moscow with a forum for regular consultations with the alliance on all matters affecting its interests. China maintains a regular political dialogue with Nato. Only in the case of India is there no institutional arrangement for a dialogue.

It is high time this deficiency is rectified. The Indian embassy in Brussels should be authorized to act as the channel for a continuous exchange of information and views with Nato. This should be supplemented by periodic exchanges between senior Indian and Nato officials at Brussels and New Delhi. India and Nato have a number of common interests in Afghanistan.

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