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Afghan War Losing Support in NATO Countries

Forces from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization - or NATO - are encountering stiff resistance from Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan. In this background report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at some of the restrictions NATO countries have placed on their troops fighting the Taliban.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 41,000 strong United Nations-mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force."

Experts say NATO has three missions in Afghanistan. The first is to assist the government of president Hamid Karzai in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. The second is to train the Afghan army and police. And the third mission is to hunt down and eliminate insurgents.

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.

Experts say NATO is 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.

Robert Hunter was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration.

"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 anytime since the Korean War - the Dutch and the Estonians. The rest all have some limitations," said Hunter.

"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's caused huge strains within the alliance," he added.

The 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. And he called on European nations to commit more troops and resources to NATO's mission in Afghanistan. But no European nation agreed to substantially increase its presence in that country.

Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York says Gates was right to call on European nations to commit more troops to Afghanistan.

"Could the Europeans squeeze out a few more warm bodies and some more assets? The answer is 'yes', but not in huge numbers. And there the big obstacle is that in many countries: in Germany, in Italy, in the Netherlands, in Canada, there is a lot of domestic skepticism growing about the mission in Afghanistan. And I think governments are fearful of rocking the boat by saying not only are we going to continue this mission, but we are going to send more troops," said Kupchan.

Sean Kay, a NATO expert at Ohio Wesleyan University agrees that support for the war in Afghanistan is waning.

"Public opinion in both Canada and the Netherlands, and in fact throughout the NATO countries, has turned sour on the war in Afghanistan," he said. "Even in the United States, there was a poll out this summer that showed that 42 percent of the American public wanted to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. So public support for this engagement, especially the combat side of it, is dropping."

Kay says the Bush administration must do a much better job to explain NATO's role in Afghanistan.

"At the end of the day, we lead NATO," he said. "And so that requires the administration to come forward and really explain to the country what's going on in Afghanistan and why we really need to either redouble our efforts or reassess the mission to something that is possible."

Kay and others say NATO's Afghan mission is crucial to the future of the alliance as it continues to redefine its role following the end of the Cold War.