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Assessing NATO's Role in Afghanistan

Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda when heads of state and government from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, met in Bucharest, Romania, earlier this month.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 47,000 strong United Nations-mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force." It is the military alliance's first mission outside of the Euro-Atlantic region.

Analysts say NATO has three objectives 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 is to hunt down and eliminate insurgents in southern Afghanistan -- home of the Taliban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

During NATO's Bucharest summit, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the alliance's Afghan mission. A final communiqué stated that neither NATO nor its Afghan partners "will allow extremists and terrorists to regain control of Afghanistan or use it as a base for terror that threatens all of our people."

Varying Commitments

The United States has been urging European countries to contribute more troops to Afghanistan. But during the summit, only a few nations -- led by France -- agreed to commit about 1,000 additional soldiers.

Charles Kupchan, from the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, says that was far from a success. "It's a success if you have the somewhat limited objective of preventing the coalition from growing vulnerable and wobbly. And that was a real prospect because the Canadians had announced that unless they were getting reinforcements along the lines of 1,000 troops to fight alongside their own troops in the south, they were going to be heading for the exits. The French are probably going to be sending somewhere around 700 or 800 troops. They will go to the eastern part of Afghanistan and release enough U.S. troops to head to the south alongside the Canadians to keep the Canadians in and therefore to provide a certain stability to the coalition, at least for now."

After the summit, French officials said they would double the number of troops they have in Afghanistan, bringing the total to about 3,000. But experts say those additional soldiers will not be sent to the south, scene of the fiercest fighting.

Analysts 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 deployed in Afghanistan. Experts say the issue of "caveats" was avoided at the Bucharest summit.

Tomas Valasek, a NATO expert at the London-based Center for European Reform, says European leaders are very wary of sending their troops to fight insurgents in the south. "The reason why many European countries are reluctant to send more troops is because, of course, risk aversion, lack of troops etc., etc. -- the usual reasons. One big, strong reason is that there is a sense in Europe that we don't quite know what we are doing in Afghanistan," says Valasek. "There has been no definition of what the end play is and a pretty poor understanding of how we actually go about getting to this undefined end game."

Calls for More Burden Sharing

Valasek says throughout its history, NATO has had countries more willing and able to act than others. "What the challenge before NATO is to make sure that those countries that may be lacking the forces are not allowed to free ride on the back of the effort of the countries that do have the forces and the will to act. That has been the case so far. The way that NATO has been going about deciding and running its missions is that the big countries will usually push through an operation, which they also end up paying for. And countries of a smaller or medium size -- they may be more risk averse -- would decide not to stand in the way of the operation, but would then not contribute much militarily or financially." Valasek says such a policy is unsustainable.

Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, says Washington must continue to press its European allies for more troops for Afghanistan. "But if, for domestic political reasons, some of them cannot do more -- in a country that is a long, long way from most of them -- then I think they should be asked to compensate with very significant contributions to the other part of the requirement -- the reconstruction and development -- which everybody, including the military commanders, say will be the key to success in Afghanistan," says Hunter.

Many experts say NATO's credibility is at stake if it does not defeat the Taliban and help bring stability to the country. Aslé Tojé from the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies [in Oslo] says the importance of NATO's mission in Afghanistan cannot be overstated.

"Afghanistan is the do-or-die mission for NATO. It might seem curious to the listeners that the fate of the transatlantic security organization is going to be determined in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, in Central Asia, in a land-locked country where we are seeing the largest NATO operation ever," says Tojé. And if Afghanistan fails or if Afghanistan ends in a rout where we see a series of unilateral pullouts on behalf of the Europeans -- leaving the Americans and a few other allies to shoulder the entire burden of maintaining security in that country alone -- that could well spell the end of the transatlantic alliance, at least in the military sense."

Analysts say for NATO to succeed, member countries must provide more troops and equipment to fight the Taliban. That issue will be revisited during next year's summit. But experts also agree that NATO alone cannot stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. They say the international community must also provide the necessary economic and financial help to aid the government of President Hamid Karzai.

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