NATO’s Strategy for Afghanistan, 2003-11

When looking at NATO’s situation in Afghanistan it is safe to assume that when the Alliance first got involved no-one expected to be where we are now. Analysing why this happened was the basis of the lecture I gave to the Royal Danish Defence College and on which this article is based. All NATO’s missions are unique, but also contain wider enduring lessons. At heart, Afghanistan highlights the need for realism, whether in analysing the mission, the nature of modern command and control, the limitations of working with civilian counterparts, and providing the necessary resources.

Foto: Danske soldater i Afghanisthan

I do not argue or believe our presence or strategy is wrong, but we should not be blind to the fact that what has happened is not what was planned. Accepting this clears the way to coolly assessing how we got here, and what could have been done differently.

My personal involvement in ISAF[2] (the International Security Assistance Force) made me a witness to the evolution of much of the key strategy, and then its implementation.  No-one should be surprised to discover that, in the military phrase, ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’, but in retrospect the gap between how things got done in practice and how they are meant to happen in theory may still startle many.

This was not necessarily all bad, as reality is a good if unforgiving taskmaster, and sticking to the original plan in the face of a changed situation is foolish. However, throughout our engagement there have been persistent questions about resources, organisation, clarity of purpose and maintenance of aim. The McChrystal review of 2009 argued that much of what we had done before was badly flawed. How had this happened?

Many problems can be traced back to the original terms of NATO’s intervention. ISAF’s troop contributing nations have fallen by increments from a semi-benign Peace Support Operation (PSO) into a full-blown counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign. COIN is not what they signed up for, expected or wanted, and at most stages there has therefore been an unwillingness to recognise a changing and deteriorating situation. This reluctance delayed making appropriately strong responses, especially as they pointed towards tough and unpopular decisions. This in turn increased the likelihood of our eventual actions being too little, too late. The result was that for much of the time, especially from the summer of 2006 we have been chasing events rather than anticipating them. We lost the initiative early.  The 2009 McChrystal strategic review, with its resultant surge in numbers of troops, was intended to regain that initiative.

In the beginning; planning for peacekeeping

It is a truism to say NATO is in Afghanistan because of 9-11, but NATO’s involvement was not immediate or as part of the US-led military action that defeated the Taliban. It entered much later to lead ISAF, a limited United Nations mission which started in early 2002, with a restricted non-aggressive UN mandate. It was far closer to peacekeeping than the counter-terrorism being conducted by the US and its allies elsewhere in Afghanistan.

This matters because much of the support for ISAF from many NATO members was precisely because it was a Peace Support Operation (PSO) and not a fighting mission. It was limited to securing the capital, Kabul, so providing a stable base for the new democratic government to establish its authority over the rest of Afghanistan. It was August 2003 before ISAF became NATO-led, and until then it was nationally led, and successively commanded by British, Turkish and German/Dutch headquarters.

NATO’s takeover was driven by two inter-related factors: the evolution of NATO’s post-Cold War role, and the more basic fact that ISAF ran out of nations willing to lead it.

The wider debate about NATO’s future was partly resolved by the successful 2002 summit in Prague. There alliance leaders accepted that in order for NATO’s role as their pre-eminent security guarantor to continue it needed to be able to operate beyond its borders. Throughout 2002 there had been intense debate over where NATO should operate. The Cold War, with Warsaw Pact armies on NATO’s borders, had made the security threat clear and the appropriate response, physically defending your borders, was obvious and easy to agree. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated a debate about what security threats existed, where they were, and how to respond. Conceptually many nations struggled at two levels, firstly with the idea that fundamental threats existed far beyond their borders, and secondly if there was such a threat, whether NATO, formed to fight the Warsaw Pact, was the right organization to deal with it.  

Throughout that debate, the shadow of Afghanistan and 9/11 loomed. Firstly because it was the strongest evidence that countries beyond NATO’s borders posed very real security threats. Secondly it also signaled that once the intellectual case for out-of-area operations was accepted then the theory could soon be put into practice with an Afghan deployment.

It has sometimes been argued that the Alliance never thought through its engagement in ISAF, but at the highest strategic level it was born out of considered debate about NATO’s purpose and the nature of modern security. The conclusion was that major threats could come from anywhere and not just next door, so we needed a NATO capable of going to the problem before it came to us. Having agreed on an out-of-area philosophy the question is, when it came to Afghanistan, whether that philosophy was backed by a rigorous strategic assessment.

Throughout, enthusiasm for getting engaged in Afghanistan was mixed, and as previously noted for many nations it was only because ISAF was UN-mandated and limited in scope that they supported a NATO-led ISAF. The post-9/11 unity had been blown away by the rifts generated by the 2002 Iraq conflict, so association with the US-led coalition in Afghanistan was politically unpalatable for some.

NATO’s entry was also driven by there being no national volunteers to follow the German-Netherlands Corps whose ISAF tour finished in August 2003. No nation felt able to maintain a 5,000-strong mission in Afghanistan, but it was argued that what nations could not do individually NATO could do collectively. It is hard to see what else could have been done. The world had backed international military intervention, supported the UN mandate for ISAF, and created the Afghan stabilization process. Without NATO the international security effort in Afghanistan would have collapsed.

A false sense of security

Even before NATO took over there were already questions about whether ISAF would expand beyond Kabul. It reflected uneasiness that however secure the Government was within Kabul its ability to make things happen beyond the capital region was limited, creating a vacuum in authority. Initially, NATO’s position was clear; having embarked on its first out-of-area mission it was going to bed down thoroughly before considering going further.

However, the caution was soon overtaken, largely due to Germany. They had a presence in the North, where they ran so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that are intended to provide a military presence that facilitates development and governance. For political reasons Germany wished to see its effort in the North fall under the ISAF flag and NATO’s protection. Their pressure, supported by some nations who did want ISAF’s role to expand, bore fruit, and within months the Germans came under ISAF. The first incremental growth had happened, but more due to politics than a considered enlargement plan.

Nations largely went along with this because it seemed limited and risk-free. Clearly, and with hindsight, NATO got that wrong. However, in 2003-5 nations had little reason to believe otherwise, and the whole enlargement strategy was designed to reflect that limited appetite for risk. It was agreed ISAF would only move into sectors of Afghanistan once the more robust CFC-A had pacified them. This created an anti-clockwise enlargement strategy, where having started in Kabul and then the North, ISAF would next take control in the West, then South and finally East.

The flaw was the assumption that the South was much less dangerous than the East and would soon be ready for handover. In fact the South was not getting better but worse and by the time the British, Canadians, Danes, Dutch and Romanians arrived it was nearly ready to blow. How did we get it so wrong?

I blame a simple if hugely damaging failure of intelligence. In the East, the heavy US presence on the ground made them all too aware of the dangers, but their presence out on the ground (away from the massive Kandahar airbase) in the South was very light. During 2004 when the strategy was set, the consistent intelligence assessments were that problems in the South were due to violent crime and traditional rivalries, not a revival of the insurgency.

Some have argued NATO was too willing to believe what it wanted, but I saw no evidence of this. In a complex environment, we just got it wrong. It is of course a moot point as to what we would have done had we realised earlier just how dangerous the situation was in the South. Later on, with more detailed reconnaissance being carried out as the first ISAF troops neared deployment, worrying signs started emerging. By then it was too late.

Planning and resources

A regular criticism of NATO has been of continual changes of strategy and confusion of aim. In fact, over the years the desire of newly arrived military leaderships (at both tactical and operational level) and politicians to publicly make their mark, has disguised much strategic consistency, certainly at the highest level. Varying implementation rather than varying basic strategy has more often been the real issue.

This is highlighted in the original Operational Plan (Oplan). The fundamental aim was for ISAF to help Afghanistan to be a responsible member of the international community by providing security until the Afghan security forces reached the point where they could do it for themselves, with violence reduced to a level (not eliminated) that did not threaten sustainable governance.

This was sensible and modest, and far from the overly-ambitious nation-building some have accused ISAF of seeking. It is more accurate to note that some nations, buttressing limited home support, have talked more about other popular secondary aims such as women’s rights. As the mission became ever-tougher, politicians later talked more about being more realistic, but NATO’s military planners always were.

What we got wrong was not the planning but the resources. This became critical with the expansion into the South. The debate around what is needed to carry out the mission cannot, in the real world, be entirely detached from what we can get. What is needed and the art of the possible are difficult bedfellows. The so-called CJSOR (Combined Joint Statement of Requirements) process is complex, having to manage a mix of requirements, offers, national viewpoints and assessments. Looking back both what was asked for and what was offered was far too little; even to do the original mission. At best, we had the minimum to do what was needed if things went as well as they could.

Of course overshadowing the resources debate, for the United States especially, but also Britain, was the Iraq conflict and the huge level of forces it needed. As was later publicly acknowledged by US commanders Afghanistan was for some years a so-called ‘economy of force’ operation getting what was left over. As the McChrystal review highlighted that was not enough..

More than any failure of fundamental strategy, this shortage of resources right from the start is I argue the main reason we have been chasing the initiative rather than seizing it. If we had had twice the number of troops in 2006, would we have needed the vastly greater numbers currently deployed? One lesson of the NATO ground deployments in the Balkans was that very large initial numbers swamped the opposition and gave NATO a decisive initiative enabling a later rapid drawdown. In Afghanistan we have done the reverse, starting relatively small and building up. While ISAF’s mission is far tougher and more complex than the Balkans, the principle of overwhelming the opposition at the start rather than growing with them holds true.

Into the south

Regional Commands (RC) Centre, North and West had many challenges, but ISAF’s assumption of command in Regional Command South (taking over from the US-led CFC-A) in summer 2006 marked the real step change in ISAF. Prior to that the sense of ISAF as a fairly low risk Peace Support Operation held true. But as ISAF troops moved into RC South the degree to which it was different became ever more obvious. To some extent this was anticipated, and RC South forces were consequently much more robust. Even so they fell well short of what was needed and the assumptions upon which expansion was based steadily unraveled.

So, as the Canadians and British deployed, they were effectively moving into a security vacuum where the Taliban had quietly regrouped and were expanding their influence. ISAF’s appearance challenged this process and the insurgents responded vigorously. Right from the start ISAF in the South was fighting an insurgency, but was set up for something less robust.

The resources shortfall was superficially hidden because the headline figure of troop numbers looked large, but the actual combat power was relatively small. Afghanistan’s harsh environment meant the support element had to be large, making the so-called tooth-to-tail ratio very poor. So the numbers available to sustain a combat presence out on the ground was limited. Ultimately, the numbers to support the strategy were simply not there.

The theatre level strategy was overseen from ISAF HQ by Britain’s Lt Gen David Richards. No ISAF Commander (ComISAF) has been a stronger exponent of integrating political and military actions – the so-called Comprehensive Approach. His successes and failures demonstrated early the limits of a strategy without adequate resources and the right support from the other players.

He based his strategy on the so-called ‘inkspot’ theory. Knowing you cannot be everywhere, he sought to focus his resources and efforts on key areas. These zones of stability, ‘inkspots’, would, he hoped, expand and merge. He therefore created ‘Afghan Development Zones’ (ADZs) within key terrain, notably the main roads and cities.

Concurrently, and recognising that administrative chaos and governance incapacity were inhibiting progress, he promoted the creation of the Policy Action Group (PAG). This was a kind of crisis cabinet, led by President Karzai, focused on the south and involving the key international and Afghan civilian and military players. The combination of ADZs and PAG was a coherent attempt to integrate all the components of a Comprehensive Approach. During Richards’ time it made a difference, but was ultimately limited by inherent problems beyond ISAF’s control.

The ‘Comprehensive Approach’ was at the heart of NATO’s overall strategy. It recognised there could be no purely military solution and promoted an ideally civilian-led approach combining security, development and governance pillars. Its flaw was not just a truly daunting coordination challenge, but that success assumed the existence of a wide array of willing and capable actors seeing themselves as part of the team. The reality in Afghanistan has been different. On the international side some who should be key players have lacked capacity or enthusiasm to play a full role. A significant proportion of the civilian side also has principled and doctrinal reservations about working with the military, certainly to the degree wished. Within the Afghan government there have also been crippling capacity problems accentuated by political issues, such as corruption, and the ambivalence (and sometimes hostility) of some ministers towards ISAF.

In fact, the greatest believers in the Comprehensive Approach are the military themselves, who understand military power is necessary but not sufficient for success in an insurgency. However, the desire and capacity of the civilian side to get involved is limited, and therefore the prospects of turning the theory of the Comprehensive Approach into practical reality are equally limited.

Richards’ control over his own military was also constrained by the realities of national interests. In any multi-national military endeavour, central Command and Control (C2) command cannot be absolute – nations inevitably retain a close involvement in actions affecting their troops’ lives, and it is the necessary price to access nations’ militaries. However, this has consequences for effective C2 as the leading nation in each Regional Command retained a large degree of national autonomy.

In the south national autonomy issues went even lower, and the outcome for Richards was the lack of a truly cohesive strategy for RC South. Nations’ inevitable focus on their own areas tended to produce provincially-oriented sub-strategies among the British in Helmand, the Canadians in Kandahar and the Dutch in Uruzgan. It meant that the Commander in RC South (which rotated amongst the British, Canadians and Dutch) was part negotiator, part commander, as in turn was ComISAF.

How this worked out in practice is illustrated by Operation Medusa in autumn 2006, which led to the defeat of Taliban forces threatening Kandahar city and Highway 1, the key arterial road running though the province. This was a critical time for ISAF. Kandahar city is the Centre of Gravity (CoG) for the insurgency in the south, and the Taliban, who doubted ISAF’s military resolve and prowess, challenged for control around the city. Success for the Taliban would have given them a key military success, and a major psychological victory. It’s hard to understate the importance of this battle.

The Taliban was in such a threatening position because the hard-fighting Canadians, who led the ISAF effort in Kandahar, lacked enough forces on the ground. For ComISAF, gathering sufficient combat power to respond to this threat to his CoG proved hugely challenging. He had to persuade the US to delay an offensive in RC East to allow the use of their airpower and get the loan of a US company, and then negotiate with the British and Danes in Helmand, and the Dutch in Uruzgan to borrow troops to help in Kandahar. Even then the balance of forces was touch and go.

As the battle dragged on much of ComISAF’s time was spent negotiating to keep the borrowed forces for longer, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Having reserves to put extra effort into key areas at key times is standard military practice, but throughout Richards’ period of command RC South lacked any tactical reserve.

In the end it went well for ISAF with the Taliban suffering a strategic level reverse. However, ISAF’s problems did not end there. In line with the Comprehensive Approach (and Counter-Insurgency (COIN) doctrine) ISAF wanted a sustained presence on the ground to secure areas it had wrested from Taliban control. However, it simply lacked the numbers to achieve this, and later had to launch another offensive as the insurgents re-infiltrated. This was a frequently repeated pattern in Kandahar and elsewhere.

Another dilemma was the practical implications of the inkspot strategy and ADZs. Focusing on key areas meant less presence elsewhere, and in practice ignoring some areas. However, the idea of abandonment was anathema to many, including President Karzai, who argued that allowing the insurgents to seize and control areas would undermine the government’s authority and give his opponents a propaganda victory.

But holding territory everywhere undermined any attempt to build up critical mass in key terrain. For example, in Helmand the British ended up dispersed and fighting major battles in remote villages of arguable value. However, giving up territory to concentrate forces more usefully elsewhere in turn created major tensions within ISAF and the government, and were effectively exploited by the insurgent for strategic communication purposes. It was a dilemma created by resource shortfalls.

This was particularly the case with the loss of the town of Musa Qala in Northern Helmand in February 2007, just as General Richards was handing over to the incoming ComISAF, General Dan McNeill. The retaking of Musa Qala, with all its symbolic impact, obscured the achievements of Richards’ period of command. Most of the strategic principles still being applied were in fact laid down by General Richards, but without the resources to apply them.

The US takeover

The arrival of General McNeill in February 2007 marked several major changes. The US significantly increased its forces, and also provided an increased budget for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and particularly police, training. This started closing one of the open flanks in NATO and the international community’s strategy – building up a force to take over from ISAF. ISAF was only meant to hold the ring until the Afghan army and police could take over, but until 2007 neither the manpower nor budget existed to create an effective Afghan army and police force.

General McNeill’s arrival also saw the US assuming overall ISAF control, an inevitable development given the scale of the US contribution. Until then, they had commanded the now defunct CFC-A, while other nations commanded ISAF, at times an awkward arrangement. McNeill’s arrival ended one barrier to proper unity of effort. However, US command, with ISAF now being a permanent 4-star appointment, also added to questions about the operation of NATO and ISAF’s structure and organisation, which challenges the traditional paradigm of tactical, operational, strategic and political-military levels of command.

Between Afghanistan and NATO’s political authorities in Brussels there were now three 4-star generals of equal rank in a row. The first in ISAF reported to the next at Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFCB) at the operational level, who in turn reported to the third at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at the strategic level, who reported to the political authorities at NATO HQ, where there was a further 4 star in the shape of the Chairman of the Military Committee. Theoretically 4 star officers are subordinate to each other according to the seniority of the HQ they command, but in practice the human dynamics make this rather more complicated. The value added of the higher levels of command, especially JFCB, has been much discussed.

Especially within ISAF (but also elsewhere) there was open doubt about the value of so many layers of command. This also reflected the fact that ISAF was effectively straddling all levels of command, whether dealing with President Karzai or the consequences of tactical airstrikes that had strategic impact if they killed civilians. Planned changes in NATO’s future command structure in part reflect the awareness that the practical gap between tactical action on the ground and political impact at grand strategic level has been compressed and needs addressing through structural change.

McNeill’s style was also reflective of a particularly US approach. US ISAF commanders have respected the fundamental strategy agreed by NATO, but within that framework all exercised considerable personal control over its interpretation and implementation. The level of influence of Brussels was greater on European commanders than on Americans, who looked far more to the Department of Defense and the White House. One illustrative detail is that most Americans stuck almost exclusively to their US-only computer systems rather than the NATO-wide systems.

In McNeill’s case, he was a sceptic about the ADZs and the PAG, the core of the Richards’ strategy, and moved away from that approach. Whereas Richards had been happy to engage at the political-military level, McNeill saw himself as an operator who wanted to keep out of politics. McNeill and Richards were polar opposites in temperament and approach and McNeill’s arrival saw a distinct break rather than continuity.  Neither would he have been regarded as conducting COIN of the kind espoused in the new US COIN doctrine released two months before he took up his post. In essence, he was seen by his staff as focused on finding, engaging and defeating insurgents, thereby creating the space for others to exploit.

McNeill’s successor in June 2008 was US Army General Dave McKiernan. It was on his watch that the advance of the insurgency became clear, leading to the sense of crisis that led to the later surge and strategy review under McChrystal. McKiernan lost his job in June 2009, although it would be wrong to lay overmuch blame for the insurgent advances at his door because they had been building long before his arrival. Indeed, he saw the looming crisis and made many of the same recommendations later put into effect by McChrystal. He also enforced an increasing focus on COIN as recommended by the new US COIN doctrine, but the tide was flowing against ISAF strongly by then.

In terms of command style, McKiernan was a typical US 4 star. He brought a handpicked US team of close aides. Usually formed into an advisory team, these aides acted in some respects as a mini-HQ within the HQ. In terms of strategic thinking these personal staffs had a key role, and McKiernan, McChrystal and his successor, General David Petraeus all used this kind of grouping as personal think tanks. In analysing how ISAF’s strategy has been applied and interpreted, the effect of this aspect of US 4 star style should not be overlooked. Many non-US personnel staffing the conventional staff divisions (eg J3, J5) have often felt bypassed to some degree.

Crises and response

General McChrystal’s appointment and the launching of an urgent strategic review was an explicit recognition that the ISAF mission was close to crisis. However it is arguable what in fundamental policy terms was really new in the review. Whether it was reintegration, strategic communication, or improved police training, these were all existing policies or recommendations from previous commanders. This is not to say nothing changed. Most importantly there was the major increase in numbers, mainly US (freed up by reductions in Iraq), but also large numbers from other NATO countries. Without that comprehensive review to assess and justify the need they would not have been approved by the nations. The review also fused some disparate elements into a far more coherent whole. Almost as important as the numbers was the more focused and determined mood amongst ISAF nations that went with it. So, apart from the provision of the necessary numbers, there was a widespread recognition of the scale of the problem, signalling a change in mindset.

This demonstrates it is not just the content of a strategy that matters, but the appearance and manner of its implementation. With increasing war-weariness, the appearance of freshness in the strategy was as important as the reality that it was not radically different. General McChrystal’s appointment sent a clear signal of renewed resolve, and that perception of a new start was vital to move forward.

The McChrystal review was another example of the apparent inversion of the traditional chain of command. It covered the strategic, operational and tactical levels, but was led by the theatre commander, with the supposedly more senior headquarters at JFCB, SHAPE and NATO HQ mainly in support.

McChrystal’s dominant role remained for the year that he was in charge. In command terms it is arguable how much ISAF felt it needed higher HQ. The dominance of the theatre level in all aspects of the Afghan mission was further accentuated by the arrival of General David Petraeus.


Generals Petraeus and McChrystal were, since the move south, the first ComISAFs to have resources aligned to the strategy. Unfortunately, as our numbers have risen, the insurgent has grown with us, so a level of force that would have been overwhelming in 2006 is now merely adequate.

Given the faulty assessments about the true situation in the south then it is easy to say lessons need to be learned on intelligence, but I would highlight a more subtle point about the problems of assessments when you move into very different environments. NATO made significant mistakes when first engaging in the Balkans, but the fact that those missions were relatively easier than ISAF meant we did not pay a heavy price for our failings. Understanding new environments, especially when they are culturally so different, requires a very different mindset and approach.

Ultimately more damaging than the initially faulty assessment was the slowness with which nations as a whole accepted and adapted to a very different situation. Nations wanted it to be a Peace Support Operation but from mid-2006 we were fighting an insurgency, but many did not want to acknowledge this. Even years later, a few nations would object to the word ‘insurgency’ being put into planning documents.

There may also still be illusions about the Comprehensive Approach. The civilian-led combining of security, governance and development is treated with something approaching reverence by many, but it has severely disappointed on the ground, largely through a combination of incapacity and unwillingness on the part of civilian actors. The fact that military power is necessary but not sufficient remains true, but governments need to look afresh at the Comprehensive Approach and how they can ensure that the institutions and agencies they largely fund cooperate appropriately.

For the military ISAF has not always been well served by our structures and headquarters. The dedication is impressive, but at every level there is a constant drumbeat of complaint about too many layers in an over-complex system. Ironically this has been worsened by the number of improvised, informal links brought in to try and make the formal system work. NATO’s new command structure may help, but a relentless focus on simplifying processes and structures is needed. The dominance of the theatre commander on overall strategy as well as implementation also raises questions. Arguably it is actually appropriate to the circumstances, but then raises issues about the role of higher headquarters which are formally senior, but in practice less influential, and how they should adapt.

One flaw has been addressed – training the Afghan security forces (ANSF). The slow early progress in this area is surprising given its centrality to the strategy. Right from the start NATO/ISAF’s core mission was to manage security until locally grown forces could take over. So the sooner the ANSF can be built up the sooner we are done, but as noted earlier this was not properly underway until 2007. The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) is now a success story, and with over three years before we fully hand over security responsibility to the ANSF we still have time.

But the abiding lesson remains the need for absolute realism. At the beginning of the mission we found it hard to accept what we needed in terms of resources and commitment, maybe fooled ourselves, and paid the price. So, now armed with more resources and clear strategy, as we approach the end we must be ruthlessly objective about what is necessary to finish the job.

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[1] The author is writing in a personal capacity and his remarks do not have an official status and should not be taken as reflecting the views of NATO.

[2] Mark F. Laity served variously as NATO Spokesman, Adviser to the ISAF Commander, and StratCom adviser to the NATO Senior Civilian representative during three deployments totalling 18 months to ISAF HQ in 2006/7, 2008 and 2010. Additionally since 2003 he has frequently visited Afghanistan, including helping with aspects of the 2009 Strategic Review, while continually working on the issue both at NATO HQ and SHAPE.