NATO Conflicted Over Afghanistan
As War-Torn Country Backslides, Allies Differ on How to Stabilize It

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.

"The political and military elements are not sufficiently joined up," complained a senior official from a major multinational organization here who would not be quoted by name. And from a military perspective, he said, "it must be tremendously difficult to prosecute a war with everybody following a different set of rules."

That is a perception widely held outside NATO but disputed by alliance officials, who said their forces are well integrated, even if the military overlay in Afghanistan is complex.

In December 2001, the United Nations initially authorized the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a coalition of 18 countries, to help stabilize Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban government and find Osama bin Laden. The United States, not wanting its hands tied, initially shunned official NATO involvement in the mission, but NATO later took command of ISAF at the request of the United Nations and the Afghan government.

Today, 37 countries contribute about 34,740 troops to ISAF, with 32,830 from 26 NATO countries, including 15,150 U.S. soldiers. Aside from ISAF, the United States has another 13,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, a mission dedicated to combating international terrorism and finding bin Laden.

On paper, the NATO mission is separate from Enduring Freedom. But as the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has grown, some NATO forces, particularly in the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, have increasingly found themselves engaging in combat rather than reconstruction, causing political problems back home. As a result, many countries -- most notably Germany, with 2,900 soldiers, and Turkey, with 1,215 -- deploy troops to Afghanistan with "caveats" prohibiting them from fighting.

The restrictions have created political difficulties more than operational ones, NATO officials said. At the same time, a related problem is that Afghan army and police units are not yet capable of holding terrain, so when NATO forces run the Taliban out of an area, there are neither enough NATO nor Afghan forces to hold it and prevent them from returning.

"This potent military alliance is at the edge of what it can be right now both in terms of its capability and in terms of its deployable forces," a senior NATO official said. "Everybody agrees our militaries are stretched."

NATO and Afghan officials said that the alliance stumbled in its early programs to train a new 70,000-man Afghan army, but that the effort has made great advances recently and the force should be fully trained and equipped by the end of next year.

There was near-unanimous agreement that NATO efforts to train and equip a new 82,000-man police force have been a disaster, fueled in part by differences among the allies over the appropriateness of international soldiers training a domestic police force -- a distinction that reportedly raised few qualms among U.S. officials. NATO and Afghan officials, Western diplomats and international aid workers said the Afghan national police force, which now technically has 62,000 members, is poorly equipped, poorly trained, rife with corruption and despised and feared by the public.

The European Union recently assumed responsibility for training Afghan police, but its early efforts have faltered over funding and staffing issues.

Similar divisions emerged over what some NATO members and Afghan officials see as the excessive use of force by U.S. soldiers and a concomitant rise in civilian casualties, the incarceration of prisoners captured by NATO and efforts to stop opium poppy cultivation.

Largely because of European outrage over the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and concern that the Bush administration was ignoring Geneva Convention safeguards, NATO members insisted that prisoners taken by the allies be turned over to Afghan authorities and not to the United States, according to a July report by the Congressional Research Service. The Dutch in particular told the Afghan government that it did not want any death penalty prisoners turned over to the Americans, it said.

While the United States is pushing for tougher anti-drug measures, some European NATO members have problems with their soldiers being used to eradicate poppy fields, diplomats and NATO officials said, feeling that it is not part of their mission. They also worry that such steps could drive poor farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

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