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NATO in Afghanistan: Security and Development

U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan & Pakistan: A Dossier

International Security Assistance Force

International Security Assistance Force

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF): NATO deployed its first troops to Afghanistan in 2003. Known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the coalition’s role is to assist the Afghan government in maintaining security, reconstructing the country, training the national police and army, and providing a lawful environment for free and fair elections. The building blocks for this civil-military partnership are the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs:

ISAF was created in accordance with the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Afghan opposition leaders attending the conference began the process of reconstructing their country by setting up a new government structure, namely the Afghan Transitional Authority. The concept of a UN-mandated international force to assist the newly established Afghan Transitional Authority was also launched at this occasion to create a secure environment in and around Kabul and support the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

These agreements paved the way for the creation of a three-way partnership between the Afghan Transitional Authority, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and ISAF.

On 11 August 2003 NATO assumed leadership of the ISAF operation, ending the six-month national rotations. The Alliance became responsible for the command, coordination and planning of the force, including the provision of a force commander and headquarters on the ground in Afghanistan. 

This new leadership overcame the problem of a continual search to find new nations to lead the mission and the difficulties of setting up a new headquarters every six months in a complex environment. A continuing NATO headquarters also enables small countries, less likely to take over leadership responsibility, to play a strong role within a multinational headquarters.

ISAF’s mandate was initially limited to providing security in and around Kabul. In October 2003, the United Nations extended ISAF’s mandate to cover the whole of Afghanistan (UNSCR 1510), paving the way for an expansion of the mission across the country.

Stage 1: to the north

In December 2003, the North Atlantic Council authorised the Supreme Allied Commander, General James Jones, to initiate the expansion of ISAF by taking over command of the German-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kunduz. The other eight PRTs operating in Afghanistan in 2003 remained under the command of Operation Enduring Freedom, the continuing US-led military operation in Afghanistan.

On 31 December 2003, the military component of the Kunduz PRT was placed under ISAF command as a pilot project and first step in the expansion of the mission.

Six months later, on 28 June 2004, at the Summit meeting of the NATO Heads of State and Government in Istanbul, NATO announced that it would establish provincial reconstruction teams in Mazar-e-Sharif, Meymana, Feyzabad and Baghlan, all in northern Afghanistan.

This process was completed on 1 October 2004, marking the completion of the first phase of ISAF’s expansion. ISAF’s area of operations then covered some 3,600 square kilometres in the north and the mission was able to influence security in country's nine northern provinces.

Stage 2: to the west

On 10 February 2005, NATO announced that ISAF would expand into the west of Afghanistan.

This process began 31 May 2006, when ISAF took command of two additional PRTs in the provinces of Herat and Farah and of a forward support base (a logistic base) in Herat.

At the beginning of September, two further ISAF-led PRTs in the west became operational, one in Chaghcharan, capital of Ghor province, and one in Qala-e-Naw, capital of Baghdis province, completing ISAF’s westward expansion.

After this expansion of ISAF's mission,  the command led a total of nine PRTs in the north and the west, providing security assistance in 50% of Afghanistan’s territory. The Alliance continued to make preparations to further expand to the Afghan south.

In September 2005, the Alliance also temporarily deployed 2,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to support the 18 September provincial and parliamentary elections.

Stage 3: to the south

On 8 December 2005, meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the Allied Foreign Ministers endorsed a plan that paved the way for an expanded ISAF role and presence in Afghanistan. The first element of this plan was the expansion of ISAF to the south in 2006, also known as Stage 3.

This was implemented on 31 July 2006, when ISAF assumed command of the southern region of Afghanistan from US-led Coalition forces, expanding its area of operations to cover an additional six provinces – Day Kundi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan and Zabul – and taking command of four additional PRTs.

The expanded ISAF led a total of 13 PRTs in the north, west and south covering some three-quarters of Afghanistan’s territory.

The number of ISAF forces in the country also increased significantly, from about 10,000 prior to the expansion to about 20,000 after.

Stage 4: ISAF expands to the east, takes responsibility for entire country

On 5 October 2006, ISAF implemented the final stage of its expansion, by taking on command of the international military forces in eastern Afghanistan from the US-led Coalition.

In addition to expanding the Alliance’s area of operations, the revised operational plan also paved the way for a greater ISAF role in the country. This includes the deployment of ISAF OMLTs to Afghan National Army units at various levels of command.

ISAF Commanders  

DEC 01 - JUNE 02: Major General John McColl, UK
JUN 02 - 10 FEB 03: Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, Turkey
10 FEB 03 - 11 AUG 03: Lieutenant General Van Heyst, Germany
11 AUG 03 - 9 FEB 04: Lieutenant General Goetz Gliemeroth, Germany *The first ISAF-mission under the command of NATO, led by NATO
9 FEB 04 - 7 AUG 04: Lieutenant General Rick Hillier, Canada
7 AUG 04 - 6 FEB 05: General Jean-Louis Py, France
6 FEB 05 - 5 AUG 05: General Ethem Erdagi, Turkey
5 AUG 05 - 4 MAY 06: General Mauro del Vecchio, Italy
4 MAY 06 - 7 FEB 07: General David Richards, UK
7 FEB 07 - 2 JUN 08: General Dan K. McNeill, USA
2 JUN 08 - 15 JUN 09: General David D. McKieman, USA
15 JUN 09 - 23 JUN 10: General Stanley A. McChrystal, USA
23 JUN 10 - 4 JUL 10: Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker, UK *Deputy commander of ISAF, assumed interim command after resignation of General McChrystal
4 JUL 10 -  18 JUL 11 Present: General David H. Petraeus, USA
18 JUL 11-10 FEB 13: General John R. Allen, USA
10 FEB 2013- 26 AUG 2014: General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., USA
26 AUG 2014- Present: General John F. Campbell, USA

U.S., Allies & Partners

  • United Nations Mission in Afghanistan

    Since 2002, the UN’s mandate is to manage all humanitarian relief, reconstruction, recovery and development activities with the government.

  • Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

    Based in Mons, Belgium, SHAPE is one of NATO’s two military strategic commands, and is responsible for all Alliance operations, ranging from the Arctic to Afghanistan.

  • The Afghan Women’s Mission

    An organization working with Afghan women dedicated to peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights. 

  • USAID/Afghanistan

    The United States has spent more than $4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan since 2002, with USAID providing the largest amount in civilian assistance for rural, regional, governmental,. and infrastructure development.

ISAF Troop Contributions

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