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European Governments Restrict Their NATO Forces In Afghanistan

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International troops under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are continuing to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. But, NATO field commanders are hindered by certain restrictions placed on troops by European governments.

NATO has more than 86,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the United Nations mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force" - or ISAF. More than 40 countries are part of ISAF, including all 28 NATO members.

One of the most difficult ISAF mission is to fight insurgents in southern Afghanistan - home of the Taliban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. NATO troops are now engaged in a major military operation in southern Helmand province.

But analysts say NATO commanders are hindered in their fight against insurgents by so-called "caveats" - restrictions placed by various countries on what their forces can or cannot do.

Michael Williams, a NATO expert at London University, describes some of those restrictions.

"Some caveats might be our forces can't operate after night," said Michael Williams. "Our forces can't operate outside of this region or district. They can't be sent in combat operations. They can only fire when fired upon, etc. And so it can lead to some bizarre circumstances where if your rules of engagement are unless you are fired on you can't return fire - if let's say you are with the British and they are being fired at, but technically your soldiers aren't being, they can't actually assist the British forces."

Williams and other experts say those "caveats" make it difficult for commanders on the ground to put together a workable strategy.

The United States is the largest contributor to the ISAF force with approximately 47,000 soldiers and Marines. Their presence in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan has prompted some U.S. soldiers to say ISAF - the "International Security Assistance Force" - stands for "I Saw Americans Fighting", or "I Stop At Five", a reference to the European caveats.

Another problem facing NATO forces is that the war in Afghanistan is not popular in Europe.

Recently (Feb. 20th), the Dutch government collapsed over its Afghan policy. One of the major coalition partners - the Labor Party - left the government saying it would not support extending the Dutch deployment. There are about 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan and they will now begin to return home this August.

Sean Kay is a NATO expert with Ohio Wesleyan University:

"There's an interesting diplomatic irony to this which is that the Dutch showed their strong commitment to NATO during the Bush administration," said Sean Kay. "And now the Obama administration is in place, which is very popular in The Netherlands - but now they are leaving. And the real question mark is whether this will lead to a race to the exit doors among not just the NATO allies, but if America becomes increasingly isolated in the operation there, then one has to really keep an eye on public opinion in this country and how that might impact operations there as well."

But during a recent news conference in Washington, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dismissed those concerns.

"I don't think what has happened in The Netherlands will have any impact on the situation in other countries," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "It is a result of a unique political situation in The Netherlands."

Canada is expected to begin withdrawing its 3,000 troops in mid-2011 and experts say the Dutch example will only encourage those who believe Canada should go ahead with its departure plans.

Sean Kay says while the U.S. administration is sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, it will also begin withdrawing American forces in July 2011, beginning the handover of security responsibility to Afghan soldiers. He says that may force other countries to reassess their Afghan policy.

"How has the American decision to begin to reassess the surge in 2011 kind of opened up a door where other states might think okay, 2011 is the date when we're going to start getting out of Afghanistan," he said. "Allies may be really calculating in those kinds of terms. And if that's true, then it raises the question of how much they are going to be really willing to invest and sacrifice, especially on combat missions in the near term, if the real goal here is to develop an exit strategy."

Many experts believe Europeans can contribute more to non-combat operations - that is working with local authorities to improve the everyday life of Afghans. Many analysts say that part may be as important - if not more - than the combat operations against the Taliban.

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