Allies Feel Strain of Afghan War
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
The U.S. plan to send an additional 3,200 Marines to troubled southern Afghanistan this spring reflects the Pentagon's belief that if it can't bully its recalcitrant NATO allies into sending more troops to the Afghan front, perhaps it can shame them into doing so, U.S. officials said.
But the immediate reaction to the proposed deployment from NATO partners fighting alongside U.S. forces was that it was about time the United States stepped up its own effort.
After more than six years of coalition warfare in Afghanistan, NATO is a bundle of frayed nerves and tension over nearly every aspect of the conflict, including troop levels and missions, reconstruction, anti-narcotics efforts, and even counterinsurgency strategy. Stress has grown along with casualties, domestic pressures and a sense that the war is not improving, according to a wide range of senior U.S. and NATO-member officials who agreed to discuss sensitive alliance issues on the condition of anonymity.
While Washington has long called for allies to send more forces, NATO countries involved in some of the fiercest fighting have complained that they are suffering the heaviest losses. The United States supplies about half of the 54,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, they say, but the British, Canadians and Dutch are engaged in regular combat in the volatile south.
"We have one-tenth of the troops and we do more fighting than you do," a Canadian official said of his country's 2,500 troops in Kandahar province. "So do the Dutch." The Canadian death rate, proportional to the overall size of its force, is higher than that of U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, a Canadian government analysis concluded last year.
British officials note that the eastern region, where most U.S. forces are based, is far quieter than the Taliban-saturated center of British operations in Helmand, the country's top opium-producing province. The American rejoinder, spoken only in private with references to British operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is that superior U.S. skills have made it so.
NATO has long been divided between those with fighting forces in Afghanistan and those who have restricted their involvement to noncombat activities. Now, as the United States begins a slow drawdown from Iraq, the attention of even combat partners has turned toward whether more U.S. troops will be free to fight in the "forgotten" war in Afghanistan.
When Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier visited Washington late last month, he reminded Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Canada's Afghan mandate expires in January 2009. With most of the Canadian public opposed to a continued combat role, he said, it is not certain that Ottawa can sustain it.
Bernier's message was that his minority government could make a better case at home if the United States would boost its own efforts in Afghanistan, according to Canadian and U.S. officials familiar with the conversation.
"I don't think he expected an express commitment that day that they would draw down in Iraq and buttress in Afghanistan," the Canadian official said. "But he certainly registered Canadian interest and that of the allies involved."
According to opinion polls, Canadians feel they have done their bit in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Stephen Harper last fall named an independent commission to study options -- continuing the combat mission, redeploying to more peaceful regions, or withdrawing in January 2009. The commission report, due this month, will form the basis of an upcoming parliamentary debate.
With a Taliban offensive expected in the spring, along with another record opium poppy crop, the new Marines will deploy to the British area in Helmand and will be available to augment Canadian forces in neighboring Kandahar.