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Afghanistan Looks to NATO for Better Security - 2004-06-30

NATO has confirmed a commitment to send additional troops to Afghanistan to boost security during upcoming elections. The commitment, voiced at the just-completed NATO summit in Istanbul, came after Afghanistan's leader pleaded with the alliance to keep its promise of help. Events elsewhere may have also played into NATO's deliberations on Afghanistan.

After NATO leaders ratified their pledge to send additional troops to Afghanistan, interim President Hamid Karzai urged the deployment of an additional 2,200 troops take place as quickly as possible.

"Please hurry as NATO in Afghanistan," Mr. Karzai urged. "Come sooner than September and provide the Afghan men and women with the chance to vote freely, without fear, without coercion."

Mr. Karzai's prodding underscores the perilous security situation in his country and his frustration over the delay in NATO's dispatch of the fresh troops and equipment.

Elections, already rescheduled once, have been set for September. Attacks by Taleban insurgents and their allies, who have vowed to derail the elections, have been rising, but the Afghan police and security forces are still in too formative a stage to contend with them. NATO commands the 6,500 strong peacekeeping contingent, known as ISAF, but it remains primarily confined to Kabul.

Analysts say NATO has dragged its feet because of internal wrangling. Nora Bensahel, a policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, says the steadily deteriorating security situation finally propelled NATO leaders into action.

"The delay has been political," she said. "The governments of the various NATO members have been reluctant to generate the additional forces that are needed. I think that what's changed in the past weeks and months is that the security situation surrounding the election, people are realizing that it's a quite difficult situation, and that without those additional troops the elections may not proceed in any reasonable time frame."

But the Iraq situation may have also had a role to play in the summit action. President Bush had come to the Istanbul summit hoping to get a commitment of NATO troops for an Iraqi peacekeeping force. However, the U.S. action in Iraq remains a contentious issue between the United States and some NATO members like France, and Mr. Bush was rebuffed when leaders opted for only training Iraqi troops. Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says European leaders felt they had to compensate in some way.

"If anything, events in Iraq have increased European willingness to send more troops to Afghanistan because the reluctance to get more deeply involved in Iraq has led to a sense of 'well, we need to compensate. If we're going to say no to President Bush on Iraq, then we need to pick up more slack on Afghanistan,'" Mr. Kupchan said.

NATO plans to expand its provincial garrisons, especially in the north, in the lead up to the election. The force will increase from its current strength of about 6,500 to 8,700 for the election, but will drop back to around 7,200 when the polling is over.

Will that be enough for the elections? Analysts like Nora Bensahel are skeptical.

"The types of insecurity that we've seen throughout the country suggest that it may be a much bigger problem than the additional troops that have been allocated will be able to deal with," Ms. Bensahel said. "But it really is too soon to tell, and we'll have to see how events play out in the coming weeks."

United Nations and Afghan officials have said another delay, at least in the parliamentary polls, if not the presidential vote, may be necessary if the security situation does not drastically improve.