International Security Assistance Force

"ISAF" redirects here. For the sailing body, see International Sailing Federation. For other uses, see ISAF (disambiguation).
"Coalition Forces" redirects here. For the Persian Gulf War body, see Coalition of the Gulf War. For the Iraq War body, see Multi-National Force – Iraq.
International Security Assistance Force

Official logo of ISAF
Active December 20, 2001  December 28, 2014
Country Contributing States: See Below
Allegiance NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Size 130,000 (At peak of deployment in 2012)[1]
Part of

Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum

American contingent responsible to:
United States Central Command
MacDill AFB, Florida, U.S.
Headquarters Kabul, Afghanistan
Motto(s) "Assistance and Cooperation"
Persian: کمک و همکاری Kumak u Hamkāri
Pashto: کمک او همکاري Kumak aw Hamkāri

Global War on Terrorism

Gen. John F. Campbell (2014)
Variant flag

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001 by Resolution 1386, as envisaged by the Bonn Agreement.[2][3] Its main purpose was to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and assist Afghanistan in rebuilding key government institutions, but was also engaged in the 2001–present war with the Taliban insurgency.

ISAF was initially charged with securing Kabul and the surrounding areas from the Taliban, al Qaeda and factional warlords, to allow for the establishment of the Afghan Transitional Administration headed by Hamid Karzai.[4] In October 2003, the UN Security Council authorized the expansion of the ISAF mission throughout Afghanistan,[5] and ISAF subsequently expanded the mission in four main stages over the whole of the country.[6] From 2006 to 2011, ISAF had become increasingly involved in more intensive combat operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Troop contributors included the United States, United Kingdom, other NATO member states and a number of other countries. The intensity of the combat faced by contributing nations varied greatly, with the United States sustaining the most casualties overall. In early 2010, there were at least 700 military bases inside Afghanistan. About 400 of these were used by American‑led NATO forces and 300 by ANSF.[7]

ISAF ceased combat operations and was disbanded in December 2014, with some troops remaining behind in an advisory role as part of ISAF's successor organization, the Resolute Support Mission.


ISAF's military terminal at Kabul International Airport in September 2010.

For almost two years, the ISAF mandate did not go beyond the boundaries of Kabul. According to General Norbert Van Heyst, such a deployment would require at least ten thousand additional soldiers. The responsibility for security throughout the whole of Afghanistan was to be given to the newly reconstituted Afghan National Army. However, on October 13, 2003, the Security Council voted unanimously to expand the ISAF mission beyond Kabul with Resolution 1510. Shortly thereafter, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said that Canadian soldiers (nearly half of the entire force at that time) would not deploy outside Kabul.

On October 24, 2003, the German Bundestag voted to send German troops to the region of Kunduz. Approximately 230 additional soldiers were deployed to that region, marking the first time that ISAF soldiers operated outside of Kabul. After the 2005 Afghan parliamentary election, the Canadian base Camp Julien in Kabul closed, and the remaining Canadian assets were moved to Kandahar as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in preparation for a significant deployment in January, 2006. On July 31, 2006, the NATO‑led International Security Assistance Force assumed command of the south of the country, ISAF Stage 3, and by October 5, also of the east of Afghanistan, ISAF Stage 4.

ISAF was mandated by UN Security Council Resolutions 1386, 1413, 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1659, 1707, 1776,[8] and 1917 (2010). The last of these extended the mandate of ISAF to March 23, 2011.

The mandates given by the different governments to their forces varied from country to country. Some governments wished to take a full part in counter-insurgency operations; some were in Afghanistan for NATO alliance reasons; some were in the country partially because they wished to maintain their relationship with the United States, and some were there for domestic political reasons. This meant that ISAF suffered from a lack of united aims.


Geographic depiction of the four ISAF stages (January 2009).

The initial ISAF headquarters (AISAF) was based on 3rd UK Mechanised Division, led at the time by Major General John McColl. This force arrived in December, 2001. Until ISAF expanded beyond Kabul, the force consisted of a roughly division-level headquarters and one brigade covering the capital, the Kabul Multinational Brigade. The brigade was composed of three battle groups, and was in charge of the tactical command of deployed troops. ISAF headquarters served as the operational control center of the mission.

Eighteen countries were contributors to the force in February, 2002, and it was expected to grow to 5,000 soldiers.[9] Turkey assumed command of ISAF in June, 2002 (Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu). During this period, the number of Turkish troops increased from about 100 to 1,300. In November, 2002, ISAF consisted of 4,650 troops from over 20 countries. Around 1,200 German troops served in the force alongside 250 Dutch soldiers operating as part of a German-led battalion. Turkey relinquished command in February, 2003, and assumed command for a second time in February, 2005. Turkey's area of operations expanded into the rugged west of Afghanistan. The expansion of its zone of activities saw ISAF troops operating in 50 percent of Afghanistan, double its previous responsibility.[10]

On February 10, 2003, Lieutenant General Norbert van Heyst, on behalf of Germany and the Netherlands, took command of ISAF. His Deputy was Brigadier General Bertholee of the Netherlands. The mission HQ was formed from HQ I. German/Dutch Corps (1GNC), including staff from the UK, Italy, Turkey, Norway, and others. In March, 2003, ISAF was composed of 4,700 troops from 28 countries. Service in ISAF by NATO personnel from June 1, 2003. onward earns the right to wear the NATO Medal if a service-member met a defined set of tour length requirements.

In Kabul on June 7, 2003, a taxi packed with explosives rammed a bus carrying German ISAF personnel, killing four soldiers and wounding 29 others; one Afghan bystander was killed and 10 Afghan bystanders were wounded. The 33 German soldiers, after months on duty in Kabul, were en route to the Kabul International Airport for their flight home to Germany. At the time, Germans soldiers made up more than 40 percent of ISAF troops.

ISAF command originally rotated among different nations every six months. However, there was tremendous difficulty securing new lead nations. To solve the problem, command was turned over indefinitely to NATO on August 11, 2003. This marked NATO's first deployment outside Europe or North America.

Stage 1: to the north – completed October 2004

Stage 2: to the west – completed September 2005

Stage 3: to the south – completed July 2006

Stage 4: ISAF takes responsibility for entire country – completed October 2006

ISAF after Stage 4: October 2006 to present

Anaconda Strategy vs the insurgents as of 2010-10-20.
SOF 90‑Day Accumulated effect (23 Sep 10).

Colombia had planned to deploy around 100 soldiers in Spring 2009.[20][21] These forces were expected to be de-mining experts.[22][23] General Freddy Padilla de Leon announced to CBS News that operators of Colombia's Special Forces Brigade were scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in either August or September, 2009.[24] However, the Colombians were not listed as part of the force as of June, 2011.

Three NATO states announced withdrawal plans beginning in 2010. Canada in 2011,[25] Poland, in 2012,[26] and the United Kingdom in 2010.[27] Between July 1, 2014, and August, Regional Command Capital and Regional Command West were re-designated Train Advise and Assist Command Capital (TAAC Capital) and TAAC West.[28] The United States ended combat operations in Afghanistan in December, 2014. Sizable advisory forces would remain to train and mentor Afghan National Security Forces, and NATO will continue operating under the Resolute Support Mission. ISAF Joint Command, in its final deployment provided by Headquarters XVIII Airborne Corps, ceased operations ahead of the end of the NATO combat mission on December 8, 2014.[29]

Security and reconstruction

From 2006, the insurgency by the Taliban intensified, especially in the southern Pashtun parts of the country, areas that were the Taliban's original power base in the mid‑1990s. After ISAF took over command of the south on July 31, 2006, British, Dutch, Canadian and Danish ISAF soldiers in the provinces of Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar came under almost daily attack. British commanders said that the fighting for them was the fiercest since the Korean War, 50 years previously. In an article, BBC reporter Alistair Leithead, embedded with the British forces, called it "Deployed to Afghanistan's hell."[30]

Because of the security situation in the south, ISAF commanders asked member countries to send more troops. On October 19, for example, the Dutch government decided to send more troops because of increasing attacks by suspected Taliban on their Task Force Uruzgan, making it very difficult to complete the reconstruction work that they sought to accomplish.

Derogatory alternative acronyms for the ISAF were created by critics, including "I Saw Americans Fighting,"[31] "I Suck at Fighting," and "In Sandals and Flip Flops."[32]

ISAF and the illegal opium economy

Opium production levels for 2005–2007
Regional security risks of opium poppy cultivation in 2007–2008.

Prior to October, 2008, ISAF had only served an indirect role in fighting the illegal opium economy in Afghanistan through shared intelligence with the Afghan government, protection of Afghan poppy crop eradication units and helping in the coordination and the implementation of the country's counter-narcotics policy. For example, Dutch soldiers used military force to protect eradication units that came under attack.

Crop eradication often affects the poorest farmers who have no economic alternatives on which to fall back. Without alternatives, these farmers no longer can feed their families, causing anger, frustration, and social protest. Thus, being associated with this counterproductive drug policy, ISAF soldiers on the ground found it difficult to gain the support of the local population.[33]

Though problematic for NATO, this indirect role allowed NATO to avoid the opposition of the local population who depended on the poppy fields for their livelihood. In October 2008, NATO altered its position in an effort to curb the financing of insurgency by the Taliban. Drug laboratories and drug traders became the targets, and not the poppy fields themselves.[34] In order to satisfy France, Italy and Germany, the deal involved the participation in an anti-drug campaign only of willing NATO member countries; the campaign was to be short-lived and with the cooperation of the Afghans.[34]

On October 10, 2008, during a news conference, after an informal meeting of NATO Defense Ministers in Budapest, Hungary, NATO Spokesman James Appathurai said:[35]

...with regard to counter-narcotics, based on the request of the Afghan government, consistent with the appropriate U.N. Security Council Resolutions, under the existing operational plan, ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, subject to the authorization of respective nations.... The idea of a review is, indeed, envisioned for an upcoming meeting.

Military and civilian casualties

ISAF military casualties, and the civilian casualties caused by the war and Coalition/ISAF friendly fire, became a major political issue, both in Afghanistan and in the troop contributing nations. Increasing civilian casualties threatened the stability of President Hamid Karzai's government. Consequently, effective from July 2, 2009, coalition air and ground combat operations were ordered to take steps to minimize Afghan civilian casualties in accordance with a tactical directive issued by General Stanley A. McChrystal, USA, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.[36]

Another issue over the years has been numerous 'insider' attacks involving Afghan soldiers opening fire on ISAF soldiers. While these diminished, in part due to the planned ending of combat operations on December 31, 2014, they continued to occur, albeit at a lower frequency. On August 5, 2014, a gunman believed to have been an Afghan soldier opened fire on a number of international soldiers, killing a U.S. general, Harold J. Greene, and wounding about 15 officers and soldiers, including a German brigadier general and several U.S. soldiers, at a training academy near Kabul.[37]

ISAF command structure as of 2011

Throughout the four different regional stages of ISAF the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) grew. The expansion of ISAF, to November 2006, to all provinces of the country brought the total number of PRTs to twenty-five. The twenty-fifth PRT, at Wardak, was established that month and was led by Turkey. Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, at Brunssum, the Netherlands, was ISAF's superior NATO headquarters.[38] The headquarters of ISAF was located in Kabul. In October 2010, there were 6 Regional Commands, each with subordinate Task Forces and Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The lower strength numbers of the ISAF forces were as 6 October 2008.[39] The numbers also reflected the situation in the country. The north and west were relatively calm, while ISAF and Afghan forces in the south and east came under almost daily attack. In December 2014 the force reportedly numbered 18,636 from 48 states.[40]

Kabul; Clock wise, Michael Mullen, David Petraeus, James Mattis, John Allen, Marvin L. Hill and German Army Gen. Wolf Langheld inside the ISAF headquarters in Kabul.

Meeting of Italian and U.S. commanders at Regional Command West headquarters in Herat.

List of Commanders

The command of ISAF has rotated between officers of the participating nations. The first American took command in February 2007 and only Americans have commanded ISAF since that time.[54]

Name Photo Term began Term ended Notes
1. Lt Gen John C. McColl, BA 10 January 2002 20 June 2002
2. Lt Gen Hilmi Akin Zorlu, TKK 20 June 2002 10 February 2003
3. Lt Gen Norbert van Heyst, DH 10 February 2003 11 August 2003
4. Lt Gen Götz Gliemeroth, DH 11 August 2003 9 February 2004
5. Lt Gen Rick J. Hillier, CAF 9 February 2004 9 August 2004
6. Lt Gen Jean-Louis Py, AT 9 August 2004 13 February 2005
7. Lt Gen Ethem Erdağı, TKK 13 February 2005 5 August 2005 Former commander of 3rd Corps (Turkey)
8. Gen Mauro del Vecchio, EI 5 August 2005 4 May 2006
9. Gen Sir David J. Richards, BA 4 May 2006 4 February 2007
10. Gen Dan K. McNeill, USA 4 February 2007 3 June 2008
11. Gen David D. McKiernan, USA 3 June 2008 15 June 2009 Relieved from command by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.[55]
12. Gen Stanley A. McChrystal, USA 15 June 2009 23 June 2010 Resigned and was relieved from command due to critical remarks directed at the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone Magazine article.[56]
13. Gen David H. Petraeus, USA 4 July 2010 18 July 2011 Nominated to become the fourth Director of the CIA.
14. Gen John R. Allen, USMC 18 July 2011 10 February 2013 Near the end of his term, General Allen became embroiled in an inappropriate communication investigation concerning his correspondences with Jill Kelley, and was later exonerated of any inappropriate activity.[57]
15. Gen Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., USMC 10 February 2013 26 August 2014 Nominated to become the 36th Commandant of the Marine Corps.
16. Gen John F. Campbell, USA 26 August 2014 28 December 2014

Contributing nations

Convoy of U.S. forces passing by in Kapisa Province.

All NATO members have contributed troops to the ISAF, as well as some other partner states of the NATO.

NATO nations

A Bulgarian land forces up-armored M1114 patrol in Kabul, July 2009
Soldiers from the Canadian Grenadier Guards in Kandahar Province.
French units on duty with ISAF.
Norwegian soldiers in Faryab Province.
Polish forces in Afghanistan.
Romanian soldiers in southern Afghanistan in 2003.
Visiting politicians of Spain with soldiers of the Spanish army in 2010.
A Turkish brigadier during a food distribution in Afghanistan.
United Kingdom's Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Luke Meldon explains the components of an Afghan Air Force (AAF) C-27 Spartan to five Thunder Lab students.

Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) nations

U.S. President Barack Obama visiting wounded Georgian LTC Alexandre Tugushi.

Non-NATO and non-EAPC nations

An Australian Special Operations Task Group patrol in October 2009.


Resolution 1386 of the United Nations Security Council established that the expense of the ISAF operation must be borne by participating states. For this purpose the resolution established a trust fund through which contributions could be channelled to the participating states or operations concerned, and encouraged the participating states to contribute to such a fund.[128]

See also


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