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.
"From time to time, public pressure is necessary," Scheffer said. "You need those headlines to convince nations to step up to the plate . . . I want to ask nations to do what they promised -- and we're not there yet."
Scheffer said he expected the situation in Afghanistan to dominate a gathering of NATO foreign ministers this week in New York, a defense ministers' meeting the following week and a NATO summit in Latvia in November.
NATO took command of Afghanistan's restive southern provinces from a U.S.-led coalition on Aug. 1.
The alliance had about 85 percent of the forces and equipment that field commanders said they needed to carry out their dual mission of maintaining security and carrying out reconstruction projects such as building roads, schools and medical clinics, according to NATO officials.
With Taliban fighters becoming bolder in their attacks, the alliance's newly arrived troops launched Operation Medusa this month, but without enough forces to conduct the operations as quickly or effectively as commanders had desired. On Sunday, suicide bombers attacked Canadian and U.S. troops in separate incidents, killing two civilians and wounding six soldiers, the Associated Press reported.
With about 10,000 troops -- half of NATO's entire Afghan force -- Operation Medusa is the biggest combat operation in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion dislodged the Taliban government in late 2001.
Although NATO troops in recent days have ousted Taliban fighters from positions near a vital transportation route west of Kandahar, officials said the battle could have been fought more quickly and with less risk to NATO forces with more troops and equipment -- particularly airlift capacity.
NATO commanders are seeking about 2,500 additional troops, a squadron of about 18 attack helicopters and three C-130 transport planes.
Poland responded to NATO's admonitions last week, announcing it would offer a mechanized battalion of about 900 soldiers in addition to the 100 soldiers previously promised but not yet delivered.
But Poland does not want to send the troops until February and is balking at allowing them to be used where NATO says it needs them most -- in southern Afghanistan. Romania reportedly is considering offering about 200 soldiers in addition to the 560 it now has in Afghanistan, NATO officials said.
Scheffer and other NATO officials said field commanders' hands are tied as much by a shortage of troops as by individual countries' prohibitions on how their forces can be used. Germany, for example, has mandated that its 2,750 troops can be stationed only near the capital of Kabul and cannot be diverted to the more dangerous southern provinces.
Michael Williams, who heads the transatlantic program at London's Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said politicians who played down the dangers troops would face in Afghanistan were responsible for withering public support in some European countries for the mission.
Even in the Netherlands, where generals and politicians warned of the dangers of the mission in protracted public debates earlier this year, officials said they have been taken aback by the deteriorating security conditions and the risks their 2,000 soldiers are facing.
"The Dutch government always made clear that it was not going to be an easy ride," said Herman van Gelderen, the Dutch foreign ministry spokesman. Now, he said, it's not a question of fighting only the Taliban. "It seems the Taliban is working together with local Afghan criminals and drug lords, so it's a very serious situation. We always knew it would be hard, but it's even a bit more than we expected."
European public opinion on troop involvement in Afghanistan is also tainted by the war in Iraq, and a general frustration that President Bush's fight against terrorism has led to a deteriorating global security situation, according to public officials and analysts.
"The fight against terrorism united all the nations five years ago, but today, things are not going as well as what we had expected, therefore certain countries question the durability of their commitment," said Serge Vincon, who heads the foreign affairs, defense and armed forces committee of the French Senate.
But Robert Hunter, U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration and a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., said, "Some Europeans are hiding behind the Iraq issue and the public's unhappiness with the U.S. in order to shirk their own responsibilities in Afghanistan."
Anderson reported from Paris. Researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.