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How Afghanistan became a NATO war

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NATO's continued and expanded involvement in Afghanistan, could well have eroded the majority of its respectability as an organisation/Getty image

The official line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO command in Afghanistan, is that the war against Afghan insurgents is vital to the security of all the countries providing troops there.

In fact, however, NATO was given a central role in Afghanistan because of the influence of US officials concerned with the alliance, according to a US military officer who was in a position to observe the decision-making process.

"NATO's role in Afghanistan is more about NATO than it is about Afghanistan," said an officer, who insisted on anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the subject.

The alliance would never have been given such a prominent role in Afghanistan but for the fact that the George W. Bush administration wanted no significant US military role there that could interfere with their plans to take control of Iraq.

That reality gave US officials working on NATO an opening.

Gen. James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) from 2003 to 2005, pushed aggressively for giving NATO the primary security role in Afghanistan, according to the officer.

"Jones sold [Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld on turning Afghanistan over to NATO," said the officer, adding that he did so with the full support of Pentagon officials with responsibilities for NATO. "You have to understand that the NATO lobbyists are very prominent in the Pentagon - both in the Office of the Secretary of Defence and on the Joint Staff," said the officer.

Jones admitted in an October 2005 interview with American Forces Press Service that NATO had struggled to avoid becoming irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. "NATO was in limbo for a bit," he said.

But the 9/11 attacks had offered a new opportunity for NATO to demonstrate its relevance.

The NATO allies were opposed to the US war in Iraq, but they wanted to demonstrate their support for stabilising and reconstructing Afghanistan. Jones prodded NATO member countries to provide troops for Afghanistan and to extend NATO operations from the north into the west and eventually to the east and south, where US troops were concentrated.

That position coincided with the interests of NATO's military and civilian bureaucrats and those of the military establishments in the member countries.

But there was one major problem: public opinion in NATO member countries was running heavily against military involvement in Afghanistan.

To get NATO allies to increase their troop presence in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, Jones assured member states that they would only be mopping up after the US military had defeated the Taliban. On a visit to Afghanistan in August 2004, Jones said, "[W]e should not ever even think that there is going to be an insurrection of the type that we see in Iraq here. It's just not going to happen."

Reassured by Washington and by Jones, in September 2005, NATO defence ministers agreed formally that NATO would assume command of southern Afghanistan in 2006.

But conflicts immediately arose between the US and NATO member countries over the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Britain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands had all sold the NATO mission to their publics as "peacekeeping" or "reconstruction" as distinct from counterinsurgency war.

When the Bush administration sought to merge the US and NATO commands in Afghanistan, key allies pushed back, arguing the two commands had different missions. The French, meanwhile, were convinced the Bush administration was using NATO troops to fill the gap left by shifting US troops from Afghanistan to Iraq - a war they strongly opposed.

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)
 

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