Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ISAF Expands to the North

The shift to a NATO-led force means more troops will be available to provide much-needed security.
By Ahmad Nahim

The British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, which has been operating in northern Afghanistan for a year, has become part of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, forces under NATO command.


The force is now multi-national - and has been strengthened in the run-up to elections scheduled for the fall.


The move comes a year after the PRT arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif to promote security and help create better conditions for investment and reconstruction.


With the switch to ISAF, troop numbers have increased from 120 to 300, with the additional soldiers coming from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Lithuania, France and Romania as well as Britain and the United States.


‘Its good for us to move to ISAF and we will be working closely with our new colleagues,’ said the newly appointed officer-in-charge, Colonel John Henderson, who is British.


Command has changed from the American-led coalition to NATO. But the job being done on the ground will remain the same.


Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif welcomed the new multi-national force and the increase in the number of troops.


“We need more coalition forces to ensure security,” said Ghulam Haydar, a carpet trader. “We will do more investment here if security is enforced.”


Colonel Duncan Francis, the outgoing commander, said the PRT had achieved much during its year of operations. Military observation teams had been patrolling the region, ensuring security for the process of disarmament and demobilisation and observing how many weapons had been handed in. Since the pilot phase of disarmament began in February, 2,000 soldiers had been demobilised and thousands of weapons handed over.


The PRT set up an academy to train police officers. It provided the government’s regional security office with nine vehicles and 24 motorbikes, and had provided computers, desks, chairs and other equipment.


The PRT was also involved in institution building and helping ministries in the region develop their ability to handle foreign investment.


Francis said the security situation in the north was better now than when the PRT arrived.


“We see lots of changes compared to a year ago,” he said. “There was more fighting and people were carrying weapons around the city. But today, no one carries a weapon without a licence and there are security check-points in Mazar.”


But, he added, “the main problem still is that people are ready to use weapons rather than talk to each other. Factions still have arguments and attack one another.”


Despite its accomplishments, many people in the region say that the PRT has not done enough in the past year to rebuild a region shattered by 23 years of war.


‘As far as I know, the PRT has not done reconstruction work,” said Sayed Jala, 31, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif. “We expect them to reconstruct our war-weary country.’


However, Francis said it was never the PRT’s mission to carry out large-scale reconstruction work. Instead, it was intended to help to provide the security, which would enable the international community – governments, non-governmental organisations and companies – to invest and rebuild in the area.


“Big projects will start soon,” Francis said. ‘The Asian Development Bank will reconstruct the road from the towns of Pul-i-Khumri to Aqina. The bank will also replace the gas pipeline from Shibergan to Mazar-e-Sharif.’


Over the past year, the PRT was itself involved in smaller-scale reconstruction projects. With a combined annual budget of 7.5-million US dollars, the British government development agency DFID and the American USAID have rebuilt police stations, created fruit-tree nurseries and handed out agricultural implements to former militiamen returning to the land.


They have also set up a library, given civil servants computer training and started a scheme enabling women in the mountainous region of Sar-i-Pol to produce silk in their own homes.


Henderson said he was optimistic about the future in Afghanistan.


“Everybody talks about peace here. People are happy that they see a better future for themselves and their families,” he said. “But we must build trust in Afghanistan – and we have to build that before anything else.”


Ahmad Nahim Qadiry is a staff reporter for IWPR in Mazar-e-Sharif.