Afghanistan War Strains NATO Ties

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Chicago Tribune
March 21, 2008
Pg. 1
U.S. fears for alliance's future as others restrict their own roles in conflict
By Kim Barker, Tribune correspondent
KABUL, Afghanistan — As NATO plans for a major summit in early April, the 59-year-old defense alliance is facing a serious test over European governments' commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan, where many members signed up for a peacekeeping mission but found themselves in a war.
With some nations declining to send troops into combat with Taliban-led insurgents, U.S. officials and others have warned that NATO's future is in danger if all member states do not step up. And there are increasing worries in Washington that the U.S. will have to pick up the slack and send more troops, further taxing an already overtaxed military.
About 3,200 U.S. Marines are now arriving in southern Kandahar province, largely because Canadian troops threatened to end combat operations there unless they got more help in the Taliban stronghold.
On Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney became the latest U.S. official to ask NATO for more troops. In a surprise visit to Kabul, he said the U.S. would ask alliance members at the upcoming summit in Bucharest, Romania, to increase their commitment to help Afghanistan recover from years of war, according to news service reports.
In an interview with the Tribune this month in Kabul, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said he believes the situation is much better than portrayed by some in the U.S. But he confirmed he needed more troops, especially those that can be easily moved around the country, as well as more intelligence and reconnaissance troops and more "flying machines."
He acknowledged the difficulty of running such a large multinational operation, with 40 countries where every one has different rules about how soldiers operate. McNeill said that it was "not helpful" for countries to set their own tour lengths but that he could do little to change the restrictions that every nation has.
"I try not to bang my head against the wall because that will accomplish nothing," said McNeill, who took over as ISAF commander in February 2007.
About half the time, he said, he was successful at getting countries to override their restrictions and move to the dangerous south or join potentially dangerous operations.
The last year has been the bloodiest in Afghanistan since the original U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 — about 6,500 people were killed in Afghanistan, mostly militants.
Fears of '2-tiered' NATO
In February, after Germany initially turned down a U.S. request for more combat troops, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned an international military conference in Munich that if European members did not increase their troop contributions in Afghanistan, NATO could become a "two-tiered alliance" — divided, in essence, between the nations that will fight and those that won't.
"Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance," Gates told the European leaders.
But in some ways, this impasse could have been expected.
In 2006, to get all the countries to sign on to the NATO plan to take over from the U.S. in Afghanistan, certain "caveats" were negotiated. Some nations agreed to send troops that would not fight; others would fight, but only in certain areas. Some sent troops in for four months, others for nine months. Troops under NATO command could fire only when fired on—but they could not start offensive operations.
So in relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan, German troops serve tours of duty that are usually only about four months — the shortest tour length in Afghanistan. After the U.S. pressure in February, the Germans said they would send 500 more troops—but under no circumstances would the troops be sent to dangerous areas.
McNeill gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel credit for increasing the number of troops, despite how unpopular the war is at home. A culture of anti-militarism has been pervasive in Germany since the end of World War II.
Even under the banner of NATO, the Germans have been reluctant warriors in Afghanistan, insisting that their efforts there focus on reconstruction rather than fighting.
U.S. toll is highest
The Spanish, French and Italians also have said their soldiers will not fight in the dangerous south and east, although the French are expected to announce at the upcoming NATO summit that special forces may be deployed in the east.
Meanwhile, in southern and eastern Afghanistan, troops from six nations — Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands—are fighting resurgent Taliban-led militants in their strongholds.
About 84 percent of the 780 foreign troop casualties in Afghanistan since 2001 have been from the U.S., Britain and Canada.
As it has been since the beginning, the U.S. has the most troops in the country. As of now, 15,000 of the 43,000 ISAF troops are from the U.S., which also has 13,000 under a separate U.S. command that allows those soldiers to chase down Taliban and other insurgents.
Most U.S. soldiers also have 15-month tours of duty, by far the longest of any country. NATO's hesitation could benefit Taliban-led militants, as the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, defined the reluctance of NATO members to send more troops as a defeat of the U.S. in a Feb. 11 statement.
Omar, thought to be hiding in neighboring Pakistan, promised more attacks and also said the "United States has failed in Afghanistan and is attempting to bring more troops from European nations to this country just in order to hide its failure."
Afghans torn over allies
Afghans say they are not certain that NATO is committed for the long haul. Some seem on the fence: Should they side with foreign forces, who have historically been beaten back by Afghans or simply abandoned the country, or should they ally themselves with the Taliban?
"If they beat NATO and the USA here, they will understand that now, whatever they want to do, they are free to do," said Fahim Dashty, the editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper and a strong supporter of the NATO effort.
"This is the real danger. I have seen 30 years of war. We will not lose much because we do not have much to lose. It is much more dangerous for you than for us. If you do not fight the war here, you will fight it elsewhere — inside the borders of your country."