There is quite a lot of confusing (or confused) reporting going on regarding the planned spring deployment of the British-led NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) HQ and 16 Air Assault Brigade to Afghanistan. There, it has been repeatedly announced since mid-2004, they will take over command of the NATO operation in Afghanistan and reinforce its activities in the southern provinces. Now, this was originally timed for the Afghan parliamentary elections which are due to happen quite soon, but it has been put back for various reasons.
Now, yesterday the NATO defence ministers met in Berlin to discuss, among other things, the exact role of the new forces when they finally get to Afghanistan. If you read the first link, from the New York Times, you'd think that the main item on the agenda was to have NATO relieve the US Army's division currently stationed in southern Afghanistan. Now, the allied effort in Afghanistan has been hindered repeatedly by the division of command - US-inspired - between NATO ISAF in Kabul and now also across the north, with a peace-enforcement role, and the US-led task force "hunting Bin Laden" around the south. If it had been a purely geographic division of command, it might not have been so bad, but it is in fact a functional division, between a (non-US) peacekeeping force and a (hooo-yah!) US-led "warfighting" role.
This is, in my book, silly. Providing security and reconstruction, as well as getting control of the bits of Afghanistan where most Afghans live, is the only way there will ever be either a stable Afghanistan or enough intelligence to finish off al-Qa'ida's central organisation there (this last point being largely historical now). And the two commands have not necessarily worked in the same direction; big air assaults and AC130 strikes do not go well with peace-enforcement, the US Army tended not to want NATO in the south because they would get in the way, and the categorisation of ISAF as a quiet front distinct from the war tended to let the contributor states keep it on a short leash for equipment, men, and mandate. It's only been in the last two years that ISAF has moved out from Kabul to secure the northern cities (and incidentally get a grip on their warlord rulers), and only this year that it got its own organic airpower when the RAF's No.II(AC) Squadron went out with their Harriers.
So, surely a good thing that the unification of command is on the agenda? Well..read on. The NYT's take is that the Europeans are blocking, not wanting to combine the commands (read: cheese-eating surrender monkeys). It's worth remembering that the split command was established when the post-11/9 "We don't need NATO/any allies, America cooks and the Euros wash up" attitude was at its height.
If you read the second link, to the FAZ, you'll see that German defence minister Peter Struck's objection is actually based (well, he says it is) on a concern for the image of ISAF in Afghan eyes. You'll also see that NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Schepper has already come up with a solution of sorts, to have a NATO Afghanistan command that controls both the old ISAF and a new strike-force callsign down south. (In the NYT it's played down and credited to the Pentagon.) And, rather than blocking, the British defence secretary, John Reid, is quoted only as saying that a united command would only happen after discussion and not overnight. And, according to the FAZ, Struck agrees with him - and is ready to up Germany's troop contribution from 2,000 to 3,500. No mention of that in the NYT.
But the really weird thing is the framing. The NYT version puts NATO as trying to avoid "getting involved in counterinsurgency". I'm sorry, but if they are not involved in counterinsurgency they shouldn't be in Afghanistan. Peace-enforcement o the streets of Kabul, deterrence of warlords in Mazar e-Sharif and, yes, perhaps a bit of dramatic airmobile doorkicking in Paktia or Helmand in the rare event we know where the enemy is, are all contributions to it. This is why a single command is needed - it's always a single battle.
On another point, the British Army has been very clear throughout that the Afghan mission, Operation HERRICK, can be launched without withdrawals from Iraq but can only be sustained for a limited period. Now, I hope if this is true the operation has not been held up for Iraq - what was it about never reinforcing failure?
Finally, kindly read this.