International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)

The Development of ISAF


On December 20, 2001, the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1386 authorized the establishment of an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, responding to the request of Afghan authorities on December 14, 2001.1 ISAF’s initial role was to support the Afghan Interim Authority by maintaining security in and around Kabul. ISAF’s newly-fashioned force was fielded from eighteen different countries contributing troops and other required assets, under the command authority of the United Kingdom. In October 2003, ISAF received a new mandate, provided for by  UNSCR 1510, to expand its area of responsibility beyond Kabul and its environs.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assumed command of the ISAF mission in August 2003. Over the next three years, General James Jones, then the NATO Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR), oversaw the three stages of ISAF's expansion in accordance with UNSCR 1510.2 This expansion resulted in the establishment of North, West, South and East Regional Commands in order to assist the Afghan government in exercising its authority and influence across the country and creating favorable conditions for Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) efforts.3  In August 2006, the Kabul Multi-National Brigade was reorganized and renamed Regional Command Capital in order to bring the Kabul area into the larger ISAF structure.4

 Stage 1 (December 2003 - October 2004): French and German forces expand northward

 Stage 2 (February 2005 - present): Italian and Spanish forces expand westward

 Stage 3 (December 2005 - present): U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch forces expand southward

Stage 4-5 (October 2006 - present): ISAF forces area of responsibility includes entire geographic area of Afghanistan

Since its creation, ISAF has significantly expanded its presence, currently maintaining a multinational force of 62,000, fielded from 42 contributing nations.5 In Kabul, ISAFs headquarters is responsible for the operational command of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, including interacting with the Government of Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), non-governmental organizations, and US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A). Currently under its tenth commander, ISAF’s composite headquarters maintains command over its five Regional Commands (RCs): RC-North, RC-West, RC-South, RC-East and RC-Capital


Regional Command Structure (Current as of April 13, 2009)
Name of RC


Leading Team Troops Chief Commander
RC Capital Kabul France 5,830 Gen. Michael Stollsteiner
RC North Mazar E-Sharif Germany 4,730 Brig. Gen. J. Vollmer (GE)
RC West Herat Italy 2,940 Brig. Gen. Paolo Serra
RC South Kandahar Netherlands (CA, UK) 22,830 Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif
RC East Bagram USA 22,060 Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser

(Source: NATO ISAF Regional Command Structure)6

ISAF’s core responsibilities include: assisting the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment, supporting reconstruction and development, supporting the growth of governance structures and promoting an environment within which governance can improve, and assisting in counternarcotics efforts.7  Specific responsibilities include:

Security: conducting security and stability operations, supporting the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), disarming illegally armed groups, facilitating ammunition depots managements, and providing post-operation assistance.

 Reconstruction and Development: providing security to permit reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.

 Governance: furthering PRTs efforts to build capacity, support the growth of governance structures and promote an environment within which governance can improve.

Counternarcotics: sharing information, conducting an efficient public information campaigns, training the ANSF in counternarcotics and destroying processing facilities and acting against narcotic producers if there is a clearly established link with the insurgency.


ISAF Troops

Current as of April 13, 2009

USA 26,215 Czech Rep. 580 Finland* 110
U.K. 8,300 Norway 490 Azerbaijan* 90
Germany 3,465 Belgium 450 Slovenia 70
Canada 2,830 Hungary 370 Portugal 30
France 2,780 Sweden* 290 UAE* 25
Italy 2,350 Croatia 280 Singapore* 20
Netherlands 1,770 Slovakia 230 Ukraine* 10
Poland 1,590 Lithuania 200 Luxemburg 9
Australia* 1,090 Rep. of Macedonia* 170 Iceland* 8
Romania 860 Latvia 160 Ireland* 7
Bulgaria 820 New Zealand* 150 Jordan* 7
Spain 780 Albania 140 Bosnia and Herzegovina* 2
Denmark 700 Estonia 140 Austria* 2
Turkey 660 Greece 140 Georgia* 1

* Non-NATO contributor (Source: NATO (ISAF): Facts and Figures)8


Inhibiting the Force: National Caveats


During NATO’s force generation process, troop-contributing nations may place declared “caveats” on their forces. These caveats can restrict their forces operational capacity according to such factors as “geography, logistics, time, rules of engagement, or command status.” 9 These caveats can have a particularly detrimental effect on commander’s planning and flexibility.

Some notable caveats include: refusal to conduct night-time combat, refusal to transport Afghan personnel via helicopter, and refusal to fight after snowfall.10  German forces have earned significant criticism for the caveats placed on their approximately 3,500 forces, deployed in the relatively calm north of Afghanistan. While German forces have allowed some of their forces to respond in ISAF emergency situations, the majority of their personnel do not leave the confines of their armored personnel carriers while on patrol and do not leave their bases at night.11 

While the current ISAF effort includes 42 nations contributing over 60,000 troops, nearly “half of the forces in ISAF have some form of caveats.”12  In 2006, General James Jones, former NATO SACEUR and current US National Security Advisor estimated that there were about 50 “national restrictions that interfere with troop maneuvers and effectiveness.”13  General David McKiernan, the current ISAF commander, has also expressed his frustration with the limitations placed on ISAF forces. In a February 2009 briefing at the Pentagon, Gen. McKiernan stated, “we have advantage with our military capabilities, with speed, with mobility, with intelligence, with firepower, with logistics. When we place caveats on our military contributions, we tend to reduce those advantages.”14

Some NATO contributing forces operate without caveats, including the Polish and French contingents maneuvering in RC-East.15  U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan operate under ISAF.  They, likewise, operate without caveats.


The Role of US Forces - Afghanistan


On October 6, 2008, the Department of Defense announced the activation of US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), under the command of General McKiernan. General McKiernan also commands ISAF forces, an arrangement known as dual-hatting. USFOR-A was created to serve as a “functioning command and control headquarters for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan” that operate independently of ISAF.16 In addition to the approximately 13,000 troops serving under ISAF command, the U.S. has approximately 18,000 forces assigned to USFOR-A.17 

In mid-February 2009, President Obama ordered additional 17,000 U.S. troops to deploy to eastern and southern Afghanistan and conduct operations against enemy groups.18  These forces are flagged under ISAF. When President Obama announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27, 2009, he stated that 4,000 additional troops would be sent to Afghanistan to serve as military trainers.19  These will presumably be assigned to the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A), which oversees the generation and training of the Afghan National Security Forces .

U.S. Special Operations operate in Afghanistan as part of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A). CJSOTF falls under US Central Command; however, it is under the tactical control of USFOR-A. CJSOTF’s activities in Afghanistan range from conducting aggressive counter-terrorism combat missions to training the Afghan National Security Forces.20  US Special Operations forces are the primary mechanism for conducting timely, direct-action counterinsurgency missions to address immediate security threats.


Non-ISAF Missions of U.S. Troops:  Training the Afghan National Security Forces



The predominant mechanism for training the Afghan National Security Forces is the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A,) under the tactical command authority of USFOR-A and under the command of CENTCOM. Within CSTC-A is Task Force Phoenix, the operational arm of CSTC-A, directly responsible for “training, mentoring and advising the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.”21  CSTC-A relies on the expertise of more than 6,000 US, international, Afghan, and contractor support in addition to the approximately 1,000 forces that comprise CSTC-A.22 

Within the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan battalions (kandaks) are accompanied by 10-20 U.S.trainers on Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) or multi-national Operation Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) that consist of between 12-19 personnel.23  Additionally, Validation Training Teams (VTTs) were created to assess the capabilities and professional development of ANA forces.

Efforts to train the Afghan National Police (ANP) are geared towards establishing a well-trained, professional force to maintain the rule of law. Initial training efforts progressed slowly and were plagued with numerous issues such as manpower shortages and a general lack of oversight and accountability. Lately, reorganized efforts by CSTC-A and the introduction of the Focused District Development (FDD) program have made noteworthy progress. FDD is designed to select ANP personnel from their police unit, to train and professionalize them during an eight-week course at one of five training centers.24  Following the course, the police return to their districts accompanied by a police mentor team.25  Under the FDD program, judges and prosecutors also receive training to improve rule of law in the province.26  While the FDD program shows promise, it is quite limited in its scope. Perhaps the most significant challenge for CSTC-A police mentor teams (PMTs) is training the ANP for combat (infantry and basic training) as well as police missions, taking considerably more time and requiring additional resources. While both ANA and ANP training efforts are hindered by equipment and trainer shortages, the ANP are particularly afflicted by corruption, drug abuse and high turnover rates.


ISAF's Counternarcotics Role


A general lack of progress towards reducing the narcotics trade in Afghanistan has resulted in years of swelling opium hauls and massive profits for insurgent and criminal groups linked with the trade. As the security situation in Afghanistan has worsened over the past several years, it became clear that new efforts were required. According to NATO, “experience on the ground demonstrates that opium production and insurgent violence are correlated geographically and opium remains a major source of revenue for both the insurgency and organized crime.”27  Therefore, since Afghan counternarcotics forces have been unable to penetrate the notoriously insecure areas where the drug trade flourishes, NATO forces would have to take on a larger role.

In October of 2008, despite significant resistance from NATO commanders on the ground in Afghanistan over concerns of mission creep, ISAF was given authorization to “act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, in the context of counternarcotics, subject to authorization of respective nations.”28 Counternarcotics experts have long argued that the most effective means to destabilize the narcotics trade is to seize opium storage facilities, destroy labs and refineries, and capture or kill high-level facilitators, which ISAF has been authorized to do as long as there is an established link between these operations and known insurgent elements.

Aside from these offensive operations, ISAF supports the Afghan National Drug Control Strategy through “training, intelligence, logistics and in-extremis support” and helps the Government of Afghanistan to convey its counternarcotics policies to local populations.29 



1  United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386, December 20, 2001.
2  NATO-ISAFs mandate has been expanded by: UNSCRs 1510 (2003), 1563 (2004), 1623 (2005) and 1707 (2006).
3  Vincent Morelli and Paul Belkin, "NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance," Congressional Research Service, January 23, 2009.
4  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "ISAF Regional Command Structure,"  January 14, 2009.
5  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Army Strength & Laydown,"  April 3, 2009.
6 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "ISAF Regional Command Structure,"  January 14, 2009.
7  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "NATO’s Role in Afghanistan," March 27, 2009.
8  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Army Strength & Laydown," April 3, 2009.
9  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "Troop Contributions," June 4, 2007.
10  Vincent Morelli and Paul Belkin, "NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance," Congressional Research Service, January 23, 2009, 6.
11 Vincent Morelli and Paul Belkin, "NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance," Congressional Research Service, January 23, 2009, 6.
12  Vincent Morelli and Paul Belkin, "NATO in Afghanistan: A Test of the Transatlantic Alliance," Congressional Research Service, January 23, 2009, 5.
13   Vincent Crawley, “NATO's Jones Says Allies Growing More Flexible in Afghanistan,” United States International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, November 29, 2006.
14  U.S. Department of Defense, “Briefing with General McKiernan from the Pentagon,” February 18, 2009.
15  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, "International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Army Strength & Laydown," April 3, 2009.
16  Department of Defense, “Defense Department Activates U.S. Forces-Afghanistan,” October 6, 2008.
17  Report to Congress, “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” Report to Congress in accordance with the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (Section 1230, Public Law 110-181), January 2009, 27.
18  Helene Cooper, “Putting Stamp on Afghan War, Obama Will Send 17,000 Troops,” The New York Times, February 17, 2009. 
19  “Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, March 27, 2009. 
20  ADM. Eric T.Olson, “Statement of Admiral Eric T. Olson to The Senate Armed Services Committee Regarding the Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategic Review,” U.S. Senate, April 1, 2009.
21  Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, "CSTC-A Factsheet," CSTC-A Public Affairs, March 15, 2009.
22  Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, "CSTC-A Factsheet," CSTC-A Public Affairs, March 15, 2009.
23  Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report, March 4, 2009.
24  John J. Kruzel, "Afghan Police Culture Evolves Through ‘Focused District Development’, American Forces Press Service, May, 19, 2008.
25  John J. Kruzel, "Afghan Police Culture Evolves Through ‘Focused District Development’, American Forces Press Service, May, 19, 2008.
26  CJ Radin, "Afghan Police Update: February 2009", Long War Journal, February 26, 2009.
27  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Afghanistan Report 2009,” March 31, 2009, 28.
28  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO steps up counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan,” October 10, 2008.
29  North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “Afghanistan Report 2009,” March 31, 2009, 29.