NATO Faces Growing Hurdle As Call for Troops Falls Short

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 18, 2006

BRUSSELS -- More than a week after NATO's top leaders publicly demanded reinforcements for their embattled mission in southern Afghanistan, only one member of the 26-nation alliance has offered more troops, raising questions about NATO's largest military operation ever outside of Europe and the goal of expanding its global reach.

The plea for more soldiers and equipment to fight resurgent Taliban insurgents comes as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's forces are suffering the highest casualty rates of the nearly five-year-long conflict in Afghanistan, and as European governments are feeling stretched by the demands for troops there and in Iraq, Lebanon, the Balkans and in several African countries.

"NATO's credibility and future are at stake in Afghanistan," said Pierre Lellouche, president of the French delegation in NATO's parliamentary assembly. "They can't fail, otherwise NATO will lose its credibility."

"It's our most important mission, it's our first priority," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview at his office here, describing the ongoing combat with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan as "the most intense battle NATO has fought in its history."

Some members of the alliance complain that others are not contributing enough soldiers or equipment, leaving a handful of countries shouldering most of the burden for a high-stakes mission that is becoming increasingly treacherous.

Although no members have criticized others by name, eight of the 26 countries are providing more than three-fourths of the alliance's 20,000 troops now in Afghanistan. Many members are providing fewer than 200 troops. Poland, for example, has contributed 10 soldiers to the mission, according to NATO officials, although it pledged last week to send about 1,000 more.

"It is important that the whole of NATO regards this as their responsibility," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last week.

The United States has 21,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, more than any other NATO member, but only 1,300 are part of the alliance's operation; the remainder are under exclusive U.S. command. Britain is currently the largest contributor to NATO's force in Afghanistan, with 5,000 troops.

Other countries have complained that their forces are already overstretched.

"Many countries are in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan and the African countries, and now the Middle East -- Lebanon is taking a lot of resources," said Kimmo Lahdevirta, director of security policy in the Foreign Ministry of Finland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union but is not a member of NATO.

"There are not many countries with troops that are up to the tasks that they might face in Afghanistan, a high-intensity conflict with the Taliban," said Antonio Missiroli, chief policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a research organization based in Brussels. "If you look at the picture across Europe . . . we are reaching the limits of what we can do."

Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, said military commanders took the highly unusual step about a week ago of publicizing their shortfall of troops, aircraft and other equipment after 18 months of fruitless private pleas with alliance members.

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