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NATO Tensions Grow Over Afghanistan

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, recently held a high-level meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania where U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials discussed how to bolster the mission in Afghanistan. The gathering took place amid concern that Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a "failed state" and a "terrorist haven" because of a resurgent Taliban and stalled economic progress.

Three recent reports released by the Afghanistan Study Group of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, the Atlantic Council of the United States and the National Defense University warned that Afghanistan is at a critical crossroads. The reports say that six years of international efforts are under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve and a growing lack of confidence among the Afghan people.

The reports fault NATO for trying to win the struggle in Afghanistan with insufficient troops. They contend this has helped Taliban and al-Qaida forces to resurface in areas they had been wiped out of during the U.S.-led military intervention in 2001.

Conflict in a Complex Region

According to some military analysts, among them Seth Jones, a South Asia expert with the Washington-based RAND Corporation, areas under Taliban control increased four-fold in 2006 and by an additional 50 percent to 70 percent in 2007. He says the militants in the south of Afghanistan have rebuilt networks of support.

"When the Taliban, say, hold territory, in general this doesn't mean that they deploy large numbers of forces to control an area the way NATO might try and hold an area. The way they usually do it is by striking deals with local tribes or sub-tribes or clans," says Jones. "In some cases they may hold at least parts of areas because they control roads. In others, they just may have struck deals [so] that they can come in conduct target killings, if people are providing too much information to NATO or Afghan forces."

NATO commanders are studying these areas closely. The U.S. military has deployed anthropologists to help its troops understand the shifting set of tribal interest groups. Afghanistan's population is a complex mix of ethnic groups -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazars, Turkmen, Uzbeks and others. Each of these groups consists of subgroups. Pashtuns, for example, have about 600 tribes and 400 sub-tribes, many at odds with each other.

In this mix of interests and alliances, NATO is popular to the degree it can provide security and development, says the RAND Corporation's Seth Jones. "In a sense what you have is NATO and the Taliban fighting over the local population. That also means tribal leaders at the district level, at the village level, even at the provincial level. Most Afghan's are really interested in basic things like security and a few key services -- water, electricity and roads. Whoever can do that, I think, wins this war of popular support," says Jones.

Alliance Strains

But NATO countries have come under increasing criticism for failing to provide enough troops for the mission, and letting U.S., Canadian, British and Dutch troops do all of the fighting. During the NATO meeting in Vilnius, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged NATO members to do more to live up to the commitments made to the alliance. U.S. officials say western allies must rally in Afghanistan to succeed against a resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaida extremists or the very future of the NATO alliance could be in jeopardy.

The United States has by far the largest number of troops in Afghanistan. Out of about 57,000 soldiers from 39 nations in Afghanistan, 29,000 are American troops. An extra 3,200 American Marines will join them soon.

At the recent NATO conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, member-states recommitted to the operation in Afghanistan. But some military analysts, including U.S. Air Force Colonel Jeffrey Kendall with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, say few European politicians are ready to make the public case for deploying forces to the more dangerous south.

"There are some nations for political constraints at home who cannot fully have their troops participate in operations against the Taliban. [U.S.] Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates has been quoted as viewing this as a danger of a two-tiered approach within NATO -- with some of the national troops being limited in how they can operate, therefore, not able to provide the flexibility that the commanders on the ground need in order to operate in those force-on-force operations against the Taliban,"says Kendall.

Colonel Kendall says that many NATO allies think U.S. policy remains over-reliant on the use of force. Some NATO allies, including Germany, Italy and France argue that stabilizing Afghanistan requires a comprehensive economic, political and military strategy.

"The Europeans are quite right. We have not had a coordinated approach to this and this is a huge problem," says John Hulsman, an international affairs expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "But on the other hand, you can't take the military aspects out of this. And so we have come across as caricatures of ourselves. The Americans have been very gung-ho to talk about the military aspects, but not that keen to talk about the developmental, economic and social aspects that really matter. And the Europeans want to do anything but talk about a military campaign here," says Hulsman. "Of course, the truth is that you need both. But the problem right now is that the goodwill tests that got NATO through the last fifty years are gone."

NATO expert James Townsend with the Atlantic Council of the United States, here in Washington, agrees that lack of public support among European allies to see the mission through worries alliance leaders. "The idea has been that NATO represents a very competent and professional organization for the transatlantic community to help the U.N. or help other places to deal with crisis in the future," says Townsend. "And if NATO doesn't have that political will to provide the capabilities, to provide the forces, to provide the commitment to take on these kinds of missions, then certainly, the expectations for the alliance will not be met. And you will have to question: 'Well, what kinds of missions is NATO good to do then?'"

Still, Townsend notes that NATO is facing challenges, but not a crisis -- a sentiment that has been echoed by Defense Secretary Gates. He says that despite differences over the mission in Afghanistan, NATO countries agree that the international community cannot afford another failed state that would further destabilize the region.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.