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

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 20-thousand strong contingent known as the International Security Assistance Force.  It is the military alliance's first mission ever outside the Euro-Atlantic region. NATO's stated goals are to assist the government of President Hamid Karzai in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country.  Initially, NATO was present in the north and west of the country, as well as in the capital city, Kabul.  But at the end of July, NATO forces took over control from American troops in southern Afghanistan.

Taleban Resurgence

Greg Mills was a special adviser to NATO in Kabul.  He says the work of the alliance will be far more difficult, because southern Afghanistan is the homeland of the Taleban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

"The southern-most provinces -- particularly Kandahar and Helmand -- these are the principal areas of drug production on the one hand.  And on the other hand, this is the area that borders on Pakistan," says Mills. "The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan essentially runs right through the middle of the Pashtun people and so these have traditionally been the areas where the insurgency has been at its fiercest and that resistance to central control in Kabul has been the greatest.  And, of course, this is because many of the Pashtuns have resisted and sometimes outright rejected Kabul's role in steering the country from the center."

Since taking over military operations in southern Afghanistan, NATO has encountered fierce resistance from Taleban fighters.  Attacks on NATO troops have increased and casualties have mounted on both sides.

Charles Kupchan, a NATO expert with the Council on Foreign Relations says, "The insurgents are showing a bit more of an offensive inclination than was originally expected, in the sense that we are not just talking now about the odd guerilla attack, a car bomb, but we are talking about fairly sustained firefights between substantial formations of Taleban fighters and NATO troops with significant loss of life on both sides.  And that kind of more sustained exchange between fixed formations suggests a level of organization and a level of military preparedness which I think is catching NATO a bit by surprise."

As for Michael Williams, NATO and Afghan expert with London's Royal United Services Institute, the Taleban has nothing to lose.

"Time is on their side.  They can engage as intensely as they want, for as long as they want or they can simply blend back into the population.  And I think the reason it's most fierce now is that they sense blood, in a certain sense, that the European public and the European governments are not going to have the resolve to really stick to their guns," says Williams.

Experts say there is already a sense of disquiet among many European governments about NATO's Afghan mission and they say that uneasiness could grow as casualties mount. A recent request by senior NATO officials for more troops now was left essentially unanswered.  Only Poland agreed to provide 1,000 soldiers.  But they will be ready only in February and are not expected to patrol the dangerous southern provinces.

A Global Alliance?

Charles Kupchan says NATO is already committed in many operations around the globe. "There are already a host of missions that are taking NATO troops, NATO personnel, NATO assets, including in the Balkans -- Kosovo, primarily.  In Iraq, where the United States bears the primary burden, but NATO members have substantial troops there, including the Poles and the Brits and others.  You now have a new peacekeeping mission in Lebanon -- the European Union has taken the lead, with Italy, France, providing the bulk of the troops.  There is an E.U. mission going on in the Congo, there are already a substantial number of troops in Afghanistan.  And so the question is:  'Where are the new warm bodies going to come from?'"

Experts say there is a lot at stake for NATO in Afghanistan as it tries to defeat the Taleban and help secure President Karzai's government.

Michael Williams says success is crucial especially if there is talk of NATO becoming a global alliance.

"And this is not so much NATO driven as much as it is outside partners.  Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand have all expressed interest in engaging with NATO.  Australia actually has troops in Afghanistan; the Japanese have participated in a U.S.-led operation in Iraq.  So they are clearly willing to engage more with the transatlantic area in terms of security cooperation," says Williams, "and NATO has talked about a global alliance working in Africa, working in the Middle East, in central Asia and Asia.  And that's still on the drawing board.  But if they can't manage to provide security in Afghanistan, then it is really going to call into question this idea of a global alliance."

Experts say NATO's Afghan mission is an important turning point for the western alliance as it continues to redefine its role following the end of the Cold War -- a role that could eventually extend its military power way beyond its traditional European theater.

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