NATO's Afghan Test

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Friday, September 15, 2006

IN AFGHANISTAN, the NATO alliance is engaged in the bloodiest and most important land battle in its 57-year history. Some 6,000 British and Canadian troops have been fighting near-daily engagements with the resurgent Taliban militia in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, killing more than 500 of the enemy in the past month while suffering three dozen deaths of their own soldiers. The campaign is fateful in several respects: It could prove a turning point both for Afghanistan and for NATO, which hopes to demonstrate that an alliance forged for the Cold War in Europe can tackle the West's 21st-century challenges.

For that reason, it's been encouraging to see the courage and apparent effectiveness of the British and Canadian troops, who are supported by U.S. and Afghan forces; it's been equally disheartening to witness the response of other NATO governments to an urgent request for more soldiers and aircraft to ensure the Taliban's defeat. At a special pledging conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, the alliance's 26 governments failed to make any new commitments of troops.

NATO's top commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, wasn't asking for anything exceptional when he urged the alliance last week to provide an additional 1,000 soldiers to serve as a reserve battalion as well as 1,500 more air support personnel and a squadron of helicopters. In fact, those forces were supposed to be part of NATO's commitment to southern Afghanistan; only 85 percent of the planned force was provided. The NATO force, which totals 8,000, including Dutch troops in a third province, is barely adequate for its principal planned mission, which was to help extend the authority of the Afghan government to southern Afghanistan and support aid and development projects.

As it has turned out, the NATO troops have encountered fierce resistance from thousands of Taliban fighters who have infiltrated the region since last spring and are staging large-scale assaults. The unexpected intensity of the combat has raised domestic pressure on the Canadian and British governments, though both are so far standing firm. But other NATO governments are failing to commit their own soldiers as reinforcements; even worse, governments that already have troops in Afghanistan, such as Germany, are refusing to consider transferring some of them to the south from the relatively peaceful bases they occupy.

There's no question that placing soldiers in harm's way is one of the hardest steps for a democracy, and rightly so. But European governments that say they are committed to NATO and its mission in Afghanistan cannot continue to watch from a distance as American, British and Canadian soldiers do the lion's share of the fighting -- and dying. If NATO is to be an enduring military alliance, its other members must step forward.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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