NATO Conflicted Over Afghanistan

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 21, 2007

KABUL -- Four years after NATO began an expanded mission in Afghanistan, members of the 26-nation alliance are divided over anti-drug and reconstruction policies, rising civilian casualties and what some say is heavy-handed U.S. leadership, according to interviews with military officials and diplomats.

Some allies express frustration with the refusal of others to share the dangerous combat roles being assumed almost exclusively by the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

NATO's internal conflicts are playing out against a background of increasing violence in Afghanistan, where the extremist Taliban group is resurgent, suicide attacks and roadside bombings are on the rise, and opium production is at an all-time high.

"It is incredible that the huge economic and military capabilities of Europe extended cannot provide enough helicopters, logistics, intelligence, and medical resources to fully support their own military plus make a major contribution to standing up the Afghan security forces," retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey wrote in an e-mail. "NATO also lacks the political will to take on the drug production which is fueling the Taliban and Al Qaeda with resources."

Some NATO officials said the alliance is passing a crucial test in Afghanistan by demonstrating for the first time that it can marshal the resources to fight thousands of miles away from the North Atlantic and European theaters. In doing so, they said, member countries, some of which have not seen combat in generations, have had to overcome growing opposition at home and deep philosophical splits among themselves.

"NATO nations have to justify their engagement in Afghanistan to their electorates," said a senior NATO official in Kabul who would speak candidly only if not quoted by name. Given the complexity of domestic politics within the alliance and the restrictions many countries have put on their soldiers' activities, he said, "it's amazing that any NATO soldier ever leaves the barracks."

Nonetheless, "for the first time we are truly performing collectively," said another senior NATO official, who also would not be quoted by name. "Rather than each of us taking a sector and bumping up into each other on the seams, we are all having to work as one unit in a way that the alliance has never done before."

NATO officials say the diversity of opinion within the alliance over issues such as whether NATO soldiers should be involved in opium-poppy eradication and how to treat Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners masks a solid unity of purpose to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. Where the allies sometimes differ is how to achieve those goals, particularly when it comes to the use of military force.

"What is unfortunate is that there is no commonality of approach by NATO member states on the military efforts they are willing to put into Afghanistan," said a senior Western diplomat, noting the tougher combat burden being shouldered mostly by U.S., U.K., Canadian and Dutch forces. He would not be quoted by name because of the political sensitivity of the issue inside the alliance.

"There are simmering tensions within NATO between these countries and those who are keeping their forces out of harm's way," he said. "The U.S. has a right to be irritated when we Europeans become sanctimonious and critical of their operations. We're right -- but we have little standing to complain when we're unwilling to send our forces to the same areas."

A critical problem in judging NATO's performance here is that expectations were raised too high from the very beginning. Politicians oversold what could be achieved, officials said, promising too much, too quickly and too cheaply, and shortchanging the number of troops that would be needed.

"What we're stuck with is a legacy of five years of under-investment," said the senior NATO official in Kabul.

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