NATO Parliamentarians Visit Afghanistan with SACEUR

(NATO) Twelve members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly from across Europe and North American visited Afghanistan on 20-22 March. Traveling with SACEUR General James Jones, the members met with Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, numerous government ministers, and senior representatives from NATO, the EU and the UN. They also visited the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Herat.

President Karzai and others emphasized the remarkable improvements in Afghanistan thanks to NATO and other members of the international community. The security situation is immensely better than even a year ago and the Taliban is best characterized as a spent force of 1000-2000 incapable of mounting coordinated attacks. The disarmament program is working and the vast majority of heavy weapons are in cantonment. Many militias are now disbanded and their warlord leaders are working in the government of Afghanistan as ministers or administrators.

This remarkable progress, however, raises the profile of other problems that must be resolved if Afghanistan is to become a self-sufficient functioning state. Chief among those is the ongoing struggle against opium poppy production and small illegally armed groups. In addition, the upcoming 18 September election for the National Assembly will be a major challenge for the government of Afghanistan and the international community. An acceptable and credible election will be a leap forward in solidifying Afghan democracy, but it is critical to marginalize the influence of the drug barons and remaining warlords to prevent that election from legitimizing those criminal elements and creating a national legislature dominated by narcotics traffickers. In response to a request from president Karzai for international election observers, NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche committed the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to sending observers for the 18 September election.

In short, Afghanistan has come a long way in the past three years and NATO and coalition forces are playing a vital role in providing the necessary security to enable reconstruction and development. At the same time, the remaining challenges are vast and will require a long-term commitment from the international community if Afghanistan is to continue on its current positive track.

Security Improvements in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is making vast strides in providing basic security for its population. According to president Karzai and NATO commanders, the Taliban has been reduced to a nuisance and is no longer capable of seriously threatening the stability of the country. That being said, they also expect some small scale attacks in the future, especially as we move closer to the 18 September elections.

As the security situation improves and the active combat phase draws down, increasingly more of the operation in Afghanistan will come under NATO command. Operations are currently divided between the 8,500 strong ISAF force and the 18,000 US-led coalition force known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Originally ISAF was confined to a role in Kabul and a few areas in the north, while combat operations and most of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams fell under the command of the US-led coalition. NATO recently decided to merge the two operations in the near future, although no time frame has been set for this merger and many operational details remain unclear. ISAF will gradually expand to cover the entire country in four phases. Phase 1 is complete with NATO in command of operations in the north, and phase 2 is underway with NATO taking over the PRTs in Herat and western Afghanistan. In the coming year or so NATO will take command of operations and PRTs in the southwest and southeast in the third and fourth phases of the transition.

The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program also appears to be working well. The NATO Senior Civilian Representative told the delegation that 96% of all heavy weapons are under central government control and that 45,000 militia members have been disarmed. At the same time the Afghan National Army continues to grow rapidly in size and capability. It currently stands at 22,000 members with approximately another 4,000 in training. Many of the warlords who commanded militias are now working within the government of Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, for example, the former warlord in control of the Herat region is now the Minister for Water and Energy.

The national police force is also rapidly expanding according to the Minister of the Interior. Some 38,000 police are now operating across Afghanistan and the force will number 50,000 by the end of 2005. In addition, the border police will be well on the way to their desired end strength of 12,000 by the end of the year. Corruption in the police force remains a serious concern, but the ministry of the interior recently increased pay in the force to most officers to $70 per month, a considerable salary in a country where the estimated per capita GDP is at most a few hundred dollars per year.

Illegal Armed Groups

Those vast improvements, however, must be viewed in the context of the remaining problems. Although the larger militias have disbanded, smaller units of 20-200 armed individuals are rife across the country. NATO and Afghan government officials estimate that there are approximately 1800 such groups with a total of 20,000 members. Those illegally armed groups are a threat to the ongoing progress in Afghanistan because they are often involved in the narcotics traffic, and they should be confronted before the National Assembly elections in order to prevent them from influencing the composition of the parliament.

This is a complex task. Some of those groups are simply bandits or criminal gangs and can be addressed as such, but many are composed of individuals who spent much of their adult life fighting against the Soviet occupation. They may be willing to give up their weapons and rejoin civil society, but they need incentives and retraining so that they can become productive members of post-conflict Afghanistan. A successful policy will likely involve military confrontation with the particularly dangerous illegally armed groups combined with retraining and incentive programs to convince others to give up their weapons and reintegrate into society. Several representatives from the international community and the Government of Afghanistan underlined the importance of this and the need to incorporate the disarmament of illegally armed groups into the existing 5-part security sector reform project as a sixth pillar. The current structure features Counter-narcotics (UK) Judicial Reform (Italy) Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (Japan), Development of the Afghan National Army (US), and development of the Afghan National Police (Germany).


Afghanistan continues to be at the center of global heroin production. The vast majority of heroin consumed in Europe comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan and poppy production accounts for approximately 50% of the country’s GDP. Both the government of Afghanistan and the international community are actively combating poppy cultivation by a variety of means, including interdiction and law enforcement, eradication, crop substitution and alternative livelihoods, and an appeal to Islamic values against drug production.

The combination of efforts appears to be having an effect according to president Karzai and his ministers. They note a marked reduction in poppy production across the country. In the three provinces that account for half of Afghanistan’s opium production (Nangahar, Helmand and Badakhshan) poppy cultivation appears to have declined by as much as 70 percent. Much of this may be the product of a combination of factors including a drop in the price of opium caused by the record poppy crop in 2004 that flooded the market. Another factor may that Afghan police burned enough poppy fields last year to have a deterrent effect on potential opium farmers who have concluded that it is better to grow a less profitable product rather than risk losing their entire opium crop. But there are other factors at work that may have a more long-term effect. President Karzai and other officials have appealed to Afghans’ traditional values in the hope that this approach will be a more lasting deterrent to drug production. Local clerics and tribal elders have to a large extent answered Karzai’s call and are preaching that opium production is counter to Islamic values. In a traditional and conservative society such as Afghanistan’s, those statements from local leaders can carry considerable weight. Predsident Karzai is hopeful that there will be a 30% reduction in the amount of poppy cultivated in the country this year followed by smaller decreases in the coming years. As several officials noted, it is impossible to simply cut off 50% of the economy and a transition to legitimate crops will necessarily be gradual.

Both Afghan government officials and international experts emphasized that the key issue will be the provision of alternative livelihoods to enable farmers to earn a viable living from legitimate crops. This involves the provision of seed and fertilizer, agricultural credits other financial measures. It also involves repairing Afghanistan’s irrigation and road infrastructure. Decades of war destroyed the irrigation system and poppy was the only viable crop because it can thrive in dry environments. Repairing the irrigation system and the roads so that farmers can get their product to markets is a critical part of providing alternative livelihoods to poppy production. Additional attention and financial support of this program is needed now to ensure that the current reductions in poppy production continue.

National Assembly Elections

Following on the success of the presidential election in October, Afghanistan is preparing to hold elections for the lower house of the National Assembly on 18 September 2005. This is a massive challenge according to the UN officials working with the Afghan authorities. Some 5000 to 10,000 candidates are expected to be on the ballot for the 249 seats in the National Assembly, creating a potentially huge and confusing ballot. In addition to the challenge of producing a usable ballot, the logistical and security challenges are also daunting. The potential for fraud and challenges to the elections are high as well; Hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens have more than one voter registration card and there is no way to prevent them from voting multiple times other than marking their fingers with ink. It will also be difficult to keep many unsavory warlords off of the ballot because they have yet to be successfully prosecuted for any crime and therefore cannot be disqualified for criminal activity.

Nonetheless, the election could be a historic moment for Afghanistan and it is vitally important that the election be accepted by the Afghan people and credible to the outside world. But it is important to break the hold of the most notorious drug lords before the election. If they are allowed to stand for office and gain a large number of seats in the parliament, we run the risk of seeing Afghanistan’s parliament become a creature of criminal elements who will gain legitimacy through holding elected office.

There are two areas where the international community can offer important additional assistance to the election process: funding and observation. First, there is a critical lack of funds for the election. Although several countries have already made generous donations totalling $39 million, an additional $110 million will be needed to conduct the election. Second, international observers are needed to monitor the election, report fraud and intimidation, and generally assist in the conduct of a legitimate election. There was no international observation mission for the presidential election, but UN officials are hopeful that other international organizations will step forward to supply observers for the upcoming election (the UN cannot organize the observer mission because it is managing the election process). President Karzai specifically invited NATO parliamentarians to participate in an observation mission.

Impact on NATO

The visit to Afghanistan also raised issues that get to the heart of the Alliance’s future operations and capabilities. Two issues of particular importance are common funding and the use of national caveats. Common funding of operations should be seriously considered by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the North Atlantic Council. The principle that only countries participating in an operation pay for the costs is not a viable model for the future. The NATO Response Force (NRF) will feature elements from various allies on a rotating basis, but the decision to use the NRF will be taken by all 26 allies. This would mean that the whole alliance would take decisions to act in the interest of all of the members, yet only those currently supplying forces to the NRF would pay. A common funding of operations could eliminate this problem and encourage greater participation in the NRF.

The delegation also heard from several commanders in the field about the debilitating effects of national caveats (restrictions placed on a national contingent participating in a NATO operation). Declared caveats are often not a problem and commanders on the ground can usually work with known and reasonable restrictions. The problem lies in undeclared caveats that a commander does not discover until he tasks a national contingent and finds that they are unable to perform the assigned duty. Caveats will not be eliminated, but they should be declared up front so that commanders on the ground understand the capabilities of their force and can make informed decisions.

Significant Progress in Afghanistan, but Continuing Challenges

First and foremost, it is important to recognize the tremendous progress that Afghanistan has made in the past few years. The security situation has dramatically improved and this establishes a solid base from which the country can start the long and difficult task of national reconstruction. Without discounting that progress, however, we should not ignore the very serious ongoing challenges. This report highlights a few of those, in particular narcotics production, but there are other long-term challenges that must be overcome if we are to set Afghanistan on the path to stability and relative prosperity. Afghanistan will need large investments in infrastructure, the development of civil administration, education, and health care if it is to become a self-sufficient country. Our commitment to Afghanistan will have to be long-term and multi-faceted.