NATO Faces Growing Hurdle As Call for Troops Falls Short
Alliance Casualties Hit 5-Year High in Volatile Afghanistan
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Post" -- -- BRUSSELS -- More than a week
after NATO's top leaders publicly demanded reinforcements for
their embattled mission in southern Afghanistan, only one member
of the 26-nation alliance has offered more troops, raising
questions about NATO's largest military operation ever outside
of Europe and the goal of expanding its global reach.
The plea for more soldiers and equipment to fight resurgent
Taliban insurgents comes as the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization's forces are suffering the highest casualty rates
of the nearly five-year-long conflict in Afghanistan, and as
European governments are feeling stretched by the demands for
troops there and in Iraq, Lebanon, the Balkans and in several
"NATO's credibility and future are at stake in Afghanistan,"
said Pierre Lellouche, president of the French delegation in
NATO's parliamentary assembly. "They can't fail, otherwise NATO
will lose its credibility."
"It's our most important mission, it's our first priority," NATO
Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview at
his office here, describing the ongoing combat with the Taliban
in southern Afghanistan as "the most intense battle NATO has
fought in its history."
Some members of the alliance complain that others are not
contributing enough soldiers or equipment, leaving a handful of
countries shouldering most of the burden for a high-stakes
mission that is becoming increasingly treacherous.
Although no members have criticized others by name, eight of the
26 countries are providing more than three-fourths of the
alliance's 20,000 troops now in Afghanistan. Many members are
providing fewer than 200 troops. Poland, for example, has
contributed 10 soldiers to the mission, according to NATO
officials, although it pledged last week to send about 1,000
"It is important that the whole of NATO regards this as their
responsibility," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last
The United States has 21,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, more than
any other NATO member, but only 1,300 are part of the alliance's
operation; the remainder are under exclusive U.S. command.
Britain is currently the largest contributor to NATO's force in
Afghanistan, with 5,000 troops.
Other countries have complained that their forces are already
"Many countries are in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and
then in Iraq and Afghanistan and the African countries, and now
the Middle East -- Lebanon is taking a lot of resources," said
Kimmo Lahdevirta, director of security policy in the Foreign
Ministry of Finland, which currently holds the rotating
presidency of the European Union but is not a member of NATO.
"There are not many countries with troops that are up to the
tasks that they might face in Afghanistan, a high-intensity
conflict with the Taliban," said Antonio Missiroli, chief policy
analyst at the European Policy Center, a research organization
based in Brussels. "If you look at the picture across Europe . .
. we are reaching the limits of what we can do."
Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, said military commanders
took the highly unusual step about a week ago of publicizing
their shortfall of troops, aircraft and other equipment after 18
months of fruitless private pleas with alliance members.
"From time to time, public pressure is necessary," Scheffer
said. "You need those headlines to convince nations to step up
to the plate . . . I want to ask nations to do what they
promised -- and we're not there yet."
Scheffer said he expected the situation in Afghanistan to
dominate a gathering of NATO foreign ministers this week in New
York, a defense ministers' meeting the following week and a NATO
summit in Latvia in November.
NATO took command of Afghanistan's restive southern provinces
from a U.S.-led coalition on Aug. 1.
The alliance had about 85 percent of the forces and equipment
that field commanders said they needed to carry out their dual
mission of maintaining security and carrying out reconstruction
projects such as building roads, schools and medical clinics,
according to NATO officials.
With Taliban fighters becoming bolder in their attacks, the
alliance's newly arrived troops launched Operation Medusa this
month, but without enough forces to conduct the operations as
quickly or effectively as commanders had desired. On Sunday,
suicide bombers attacked Canadian and U.S. troops in separate
incidents, killing two civilians and wounding six soldiers, the
Associated Press reported.
With about 10,000 troops -- half of NATO's entire Afghan force
-- Operation Medusa is the biggest combat operation in
Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion dislodged the Taliban
government in late 2001.
Although NATO troops in recent days have ousted Taliban fighters
from positions near a vital transportation route west of
Kandahar, officials said the battle could have been fought more
quickly and with less risk to NATO forces with more troops and
equipment -- particularly airlift capacity.
NATO commanders are seeking about 2,500 additional troops, a
squadron of about 18 attack helicopters and three C-130
Poland responded to NATO's admonitions last week, announcing it
would offer a mechanized battalion of about 900 soldiers in
addition to the 100 soldiers previously promised but not yet
But Poland does not want to send the troops until February and
is balking at allowing them to be used where NATO says it needs
them most -- in southern Afghanistan. Romania reportedly is
considering offering about 200 soldiers in addition to the 560
it now has in Afghanistan, NATO officials said.
Scheffer and other NATO officials said field commanders' hands
are tied as much by a shortage of troops as by individual
countries' prohibitions on how their forces can be used.
Germany, for example, has mandated that its 2,750 troops can be
stationed only near the capital of Kabul and cannot be diverted
to the more dangerous southern provinces.
Michael Williams, who heads the transatlantic program at
London's Royal United Services Institute for Defense and
Security Studies, said politicians who played down the dangers
troops would face in Afghanistan were responsible for withering
public support in some European countries for the mission.
Even in the Netherlands, where generals and politicians warned
of the dangers of the mission in protracted public debates
earlier this year, officials said they have been taken aback by
the deteriorating security conditions and the risks their 2,000
soldiers are facing.
"The Dutch government always made clear that it was not going to
be an easy ride," said Herman van Gelderen, the Dutch foreign
ministry spokesman. Now, he said, it's not a question of
fighting only the Taliban. "It seems the Taliban is working
together with local Afghan criminals and drug lords, so it's a
very serious situation. We always knew it would be hard, but
it's even a bit more than we expected."
European public opinion on troop involvement in Afghanistan is
also tainted by the war in Iraq, and a general frustration that
President Bush's fight against terrorism has led to a
deteriorating global security situation, according to public
officials and analysts.
"The fight against terrorism united all the nations five years
ago, but today, things are not going as well as what we had
expected, therefore certain countries question the durability of
their commitment," said Serge Vincon, who heads the foreign
affairs, defense and armed forces committee of the French
But Robert Hunter, U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton
administration and a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., said,
"Some Europeans are hiding behind the Iraq issue and the
public's unhappiness with the U.S. in order to shirk their own
responsibilities in Afghanistan."
Anderson reported from Paris. Researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris
contributed to this report.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
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