At the end of last month, forces from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, assumed command of military operations in southern Afghanistan.
NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003 -- the alliance's first mission ever outside the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO's stated goals are to provide security so that the Afghan government can increase its authority across the country and help in reconstruction efforts.
Initially, NATO was present in the north and west of the country as well as in the capital city, Kabul. But as of July 31st, NATO forces took over control from American troops in southern Afghanistan.
Experts say this will be a far more difficult task than in other regions of the country, because southern Afghanistan is the homeland of the Taleban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led military coalition in 2001.
Michael Williams, a NATO and Afghanistan expert with London's Royal United Services Institute, says, "It's where the Taleban, basically, came from. And they were able to, because of the strategy we employed which was to go for Kabul and the central region and then radiate outwards -- the Taleban, who were forced out of Kabul and forced out of the rest of the country, went to the south, which is also generally the hub of the poppy industry, which is about 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product -- and they were able there to regroup, to gather strength, to work with poppy dealers who sell them the crop internationally for heroin production. And, of course, they engage in cross-border activities, hiding in Pakistan and gathering strength."
Analysts say in the past year, there has been a resurgence of Taleban activity in southern Afghanistan and its fighters have become bolder in their attacks on foreign troops.
Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says the alliance is facing a daunting assignment. "It is going to be an extremely difficult job for these forces from different countries, even though they are highly trained and highly motivated and well led, to take on tasks in a very forbidding part of the world, with an enemy that has some of the most complex and capable, asymmetrical warfare tactics," says Hunter. "NATO is going to face a bunch of hardened, dedicated fighters who know a lot about what we would call 'guerilla warfare' or in the modern term is called 'insurgency warfare' -- people who often can blend into the civilian population and who will have as their objective to pick off NATO forces one-by-one, in the hope that this will crack the will of the civilian population back home and of governments, in order to drive NATO out."
As for Dennis Kux, an expet for Afghanistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Taleban has another objective. "The Taleban are also testing NATO to see whether they have the same capabilities that the Americans who were there before had. And so it's a difficult time and so far there have been a number of casualties and there has been a lot of fighting in the area," says Kux. "NATO has had a problem -- they haven't had adequate communications, transport equipment. They have been short of helicopters. So things haven't gone as well, as smoothly, perhaps, as one had hoped."
Several NATO soldiers have already been killed in southern Afghanistan since the alliance took over anti-Taleban operations there July 31st.
Kux says despite the dangers, NATO must succeed in its Afghan mission. "It is the first time it has taken on a task of this nature. And if it fails, it will see a weakening of the overall alliance structure, morale and credibility. So it's very important for NATO, having made this commitment to see that they succee," says Kux. "But Afghanistan, for Europe, is a long way away and there are people in some of the countries who question whether it is a wise thing."
Some analysts believe NATO's Afghan mission could strain the alliance and make some countries reassess their participation if risks increase.
Charles Kupchan, NATO expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, sees another danger, "And that is that NATO, perhaps oversteps its capabilities, finds itself in a situation in which number one, member states are tasked with missions with which they are uncomfortable, producing high levels of casualties. And number two, in which the overall mission -- stabilizing Afghanistan, bringing peace to the region, clamping down on the drug trade -- proves to be elusive," says Kupchan. "And that could potentially, over the long run, serve as a bit of a black mark on NATO's record. So there is a risk here that by trying to make itself relevant, by showing that it is ready to deal with the new challenges of the 21st century, even if beyond Europe -- NATO could in fact deal itself a blow, if in fact it ultimately proves unable to complete the mission."
Kupchan says NATO is still trying to re-invent itself in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. He says there is talk of an even wider NATO with the alliance developing partnerships with India, Australia and Japan. And there is even discussion of a possible NATO role in Lebanon. But he says this may overstretch the alliance to such a degree that people will begin to ask whether NATO could, in fact, tackle effectively all these tasks in an ever-changing world.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.