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Defining NATO's Role in Afghanistan

In southern Afghanistan, forces from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, are encountering stiff resistance from Taliban insurgents.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 41,000-strong United Nations-mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force". It is the military alliance's first mission ever outside the Euro-Atlantic region.

Sean Kay, a NATO expert at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, says NATO has three basic missions in Afghanistan. The first one is assisting the government of president Hamid Karzai in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country.

"The second one is more precise: it's training the Afghan army and also assisting in facilitating police training, although that's not a primary NATO mission. And then the third one is combat: hunting down and eliminating insurgents in southern Afghanistan. Therein lies one of the core problems in that there are basically two conflicting missions in effect -- one is the peace-building operation and the other is combat," says Kay.

Taliban Stronghold

The fiercest combat has been centered in southern Afghanistan, the home of the Taliban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. Charles Kupchan, a NATO expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says the Taliban has also been able to create a sanctuary in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan where its forces have been able to regroup.

"And they've been able to rearm, get new financing, to get new weapons and that's enabled them to kind of get their capabilities up to snuff [i.e., up to date]. And that's partly a question of the terrain,” says Kupchan. “It's very difficult for the United States and NATO to go after these units in the mountainous areas. And it's also a political problem where President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is having a great deal of difficulty trying to get the various tribes in these areas, in the tribal borderlands, to fight the Taliban. And so both from the political perspective and the strategic perspective, it's been difficult to make progress."

NATO’s Challenge

Experts say Taliban forces have shifted their tactics in their fight against NATO troops. Michael Williams with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, says Taliban fighters are no longer attacking NATO head on. He says they are using classic insurgency tactics -- quick attacks against several NATO positions simultaneously, followed by withdrawal.

"So this means that NATO is constantly on the run, trying to put out these fires and that there aren't enough NATO troops to really sustain the ground. So what happens is they [i.e., NATO] take an area, they win a battle and then they move on. And unfortunately a lot of times, that area reverts to Taliban control because there are no indigenous forces -- Afghan police or military -- that can actually hold the ground after NATO takes it," says Williams.

Analysts say NATO is also hindered in its fight against the Taliban by so-called "caveats" -- restrictions placed by various NATO member countries on what their forces can do and where they can be located in Afghanistan.

Alliance Strains

Robert Hunter was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration says, "There are only about four or five countries that say we will go anywhere and do whatever fighting we have to do: the Americans, the British, the Canadians -- who have suffered more casualties than any time since the Korean War -- the Dutch and the Estonians. The rest all have some limitations. The Belgians won't leave the area around Kabul airport. The Germans operate in the north, which is an important area, but it's a stable area -- and onward and onward. So that very few allies are sharing most of the risks and the others won't do so. And that has caused huge strains within the alliance."

Those strains were evident in late October during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in the Netherlands. At that gathering, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sharply criticized some alliance members, saying the "caveats", or restrictions, have done real harm to the NATO effort in Afghanistan.

"Meeting commitments means assuming some level of risk and asserting the political will necessary to deploy armed forces beyond one's borders -- fully manned and equipped, and without restrictions that undermine the mission,” said Gates. “In Afghanistan, a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens of allies to create the secure environment necessary for economic development, building civic institutions and establishing the rule of law. The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission -- and with it, the credibility of NATO -- at real risk."

Many experts, including Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations, agree with Gates's assessment. “One of the reasons that the United States is pushing for more troops is that the situation has gotten worse in the last year or two. Violence is increasing. More suicide attacks are occurring. And if you look at the numbers, the trend is somewhat worrisome. In this year 2007, we've already had more U.S. soldiers die than in all of last year. On the civilian front, in 2006, the number was 4,000 killed. In 2007, we are already well above 5,000. And so it's clear that the situation is getting worse, not better," says Kupchan.

Many experts say NATO's Afghan mission is crucial for its future as it continues to redefine its role following the end of the Cold War.

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