This morning in Afghanistan marked the end of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, and the beginning of the Resolute Support mission. This marks the official end of combat operations for international forces, with the Afghan National Security Forces now in the lead. U.S., NATO, and international forces will remain in place as combat support and trainers, so maybe it feels like technicality. But I wanted to take a few words to pay my respects to ISAF, which is no more after today.
My first deployment in 2006 saw the expansion of ISAF to include command of all U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, and the first time that U.S. troops in Afghanistan universally wore the ISAF patch. It was met with derision by many–sentiments which, in my observation, ranged from frustration or discomfort with serving as part of an international mission rather than a purely U.S. mission, to frustrations with the operations of NATO partners who over the years we saw as ceding U.S.-won districts back to Taliban control. I heard U.S. troops joke that ISAF stood for “I Saw Americans Fight” or “I Shoot At Farmers.” It’s totally true, at least from my perspective, that the NATO command was fraught with problems over the years. But. Despite the problems and shortcomings, it has nevertheless been an important project that much good has come from as well. I’d like to focus here on the positive outcomes.
International Cooperation. It’s true that U.S. forces (the U.S. Army in particular) bore the overwhelming burden of multiple, long deployments in Afghanistan that had them slogging through insurgent-filled mountains for 12 to 18 months at a time. But it’s also been a rare thing in history to have the level of international participation we’ve seen in Afghanistan. Other NATO countries have contributed many troops, in addition to important non-NATO allies like Australia and New Zealand. There have also been Mongolian soldiers working as security and trainers over the years; Egyptians have operated a humanitarian hospital; Jordan, Korea, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, and many others have had troops in Afghanistan as well–for a total of 48 different countries contributing troops. We can talk about what foreign troops did or didn’t do, or the politicking behind any or all of it, but I think we cannot underestimate the importance of this level of international cooperation. Many troops from many nations have served and sacrificed for the cause of stabilizing Afghanistan. In broad brushstrokes: military cooperation makes a more peaceful world. I’m for it, and I’m proud to have been a part of such a worthy effort.
Legitimacy. I’ve pointed out before the broad differences between the American enterprise in Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the cooperation of so many different nations further gives the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan the legitimacy needed to withstand the storm of negative actors and influencers that yet remains. When many nations have sacrificed so much in lives and expenditures, they will have a continued stake in the success of Afghanistan, its economy, and its people. The involvement of so many nations also challenges the narrative of negative influencers who would stir up anti-U.S. sentiment as a reason to undo the progress that’s been made–it takes much more effort to oppose the efforts of so many partner nations, many of whom are successful Islamic countries.
Substantive Gains. I’ve mentioned before that amid many negative stories, the progress made by Afghan women has been noteworthy and substantive. Under ISAF, an Afghan government has been stood up, supported, and is functioning. Afghan security forces have been stood up, trained, and are now taking the lead. More Afghan boys and girls are being educated than at any time in Afghan history. Afghan-run television and cell phone service has nationwide reach. Afghan youth are hungry for modernization and participation in the global economy. Yes, there have been setbacks, problems, and missed opportunities. But. Progress has been real. It has been substantive.
Take a look at NATO’s Return to Hope website–which you can view HERE–which gives a multimedia account of the tremendous contributions made under ISAF. There’s a lot of beautiful and inspiring stuff here–as I believe there also is in real life, in the lives of real people who are thriving in Afghanistan as a result of the hard work of many Afghans in partnership with the U.S. and so many contributing countries. It’s been imperfect, but inspiring nevertheless. I’m proud to have played a small role in the effort. Best wishes and respect to all those who have served and sacrificed on behalf of others these many years, and to the Afghans who have worked, fought, sacrificed, and risked so much to make this progress real.