KANDAHAR—Ask American troops in Afghanistan what ISAF means, and you are opening the door to a running joke: "I Saw Americans Fight," and "I Suck at Fighting," and "I Sunbathe at FOBs" (a reference to the heavily fortified and largely safe forward operating bases) are among the more popular punch lines. In fact, ISAF is the acronym for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which is made up of soldiers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and 35 other nations.
And the U.S. soldiers who offer up the jokes are only half kidding. Their point is a serious one: that troops from the United States—along with just a handful of other countries—do the bulk of the heavy fighting, while a number of other ISAF detachments are limited by their own governments' combat restrictions. These include prohibitions, or "caveats," against, for example, fighting in the snow for troops from some southern European nations. Other soldiers are required to stay in calmer areas of the country or to keep their aircraft grounded at night or to consult their home legislatures before operating near the volatile Pakistani border.
These are handicaps, to be sure, though last week the outgoing head of ISAF took exception to criticism of the coalition. As he prepared to hand over the reins of the command he has held since February 2007, American Gen. Dan McNeill pointed out that the number of international soldiers in Afghanistan has grown from 36,000 troops at the beginning of his tenure to nearly 53,000 today. It is proof, he asserted, of the international alliance's commitment to the country. "That says to me that all the wags who in late 2006 and early 2007 were predicting the failure and fracture of the NATO alliance probably got it wrong," he said.
Troop shortage. But "probably" remains the operative word. And considerable challenges awaited Gen. David McKiernan, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe and former commander of ground forces during the 2003 Iraq invasion, as he took the helm of ISAF June 3. Violence is up 50 percent in eastern Afghanistan compared with 2007, and the drug trade is exploding. Last year, too, there were 140 suicide bombings here, a record number. ISAF fields one third the number of foreign troops in Iraq, yet Afghanistan is 50 percent larger and has some 4 million more people. So, despite the increase in troop numbers, McNeill says the country still needs more. "It's an underresourced force," he said. "That's been a constant theme since I've been here."
It is a theme that has been echoed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as well, who has expressed concern that NATO could become a "two-tiered alliance," with only a handful of countries—namely Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States—willing to "fight and die" against the Taliban. Gates lobbied hard in Europe earlier this year for more troops, writing to every alliance defense minister. France agreed to 700 more soldiers, and Poland 400 plus eight badly needed helicopters. Georgia (which hopes to become a NATO member) is sending 500 soldiers.
But beyond that, there were no big takers among NATO leaders facing their own political pressure on the home front. In the end, the United States upped its own commitment—something the Pentagon initially said it would not do—sending 3,200 marines into Helmand province, the heart of the drug trade and Taliban resistance.
It has been a tough fight for them. Marines are now on Day 30-plus of what was initially expected to be a three-to-five-day campaign, as they live without electricity or running water and face Taliban reinforcements who continue to flow into their territory from neighboring Pakistan. But they are making key strides, military officials say, with a recent operation to block escape routes and cut off Taliban supply lines.
"Mowing the lawn." They are operating in an area that British forces, hobbled by insufficient troop levels, have tried to clear before. One British commander referred to it as "mowing the lawn," since the insurgency seems to just grow back.
The question is, what happens next? Other allies—France, for one—have suggested that Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government will need to hold reconciliation talks with insurgents from the former Taliban regime but not until some level of security is established. Earlier this year, the American ambassador to Afghanistan sought advice from a former Taliban commander, asking what ISAF could do to reduce popular support for the Taliban. Reconciliation steps are important in Afghanistan, note allies, who see the fight here as a classic counterinsurgency struggle.