NATO far from relieving US forces in Afghanistan

Member states pledged more materiel last week, but a US handover looks unrealistic.

NATO-led peacekeeping troops patrolling Kabul's crowded streets can look forward to some long-awaited infusions of aircraft and personnel from the alliance in coming months.

An idea put forth last week by US Secretary of State Colin Powell that NATO should consider eventually "taking over" all foreign military operations in Afghanistan is unrealistic, they suggest.

They note that while NATO headquarters has pushed for an expansion of the peacekeeping efforts here, European capitals have been sluggish to commit the necessary forces to make that happen. As a result, it is the availability of NATO forces that will drive the mission in Afghanistan, instead of the other way around.

"You can't make a plan until you know who will give what," says Squadron Leader Paul Rice, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. "We're going to piece together whatever we can get our hands on."

So far that amounts to little more than 5,700 troops.

"We're now in an infantile stage," says Mr. Rice. "We're not geared up for [combat] operations in hostile areas," he added.

A United Nations mandate in October that allows NATO to expand ISAF forces beyond Kabul has led to few concrete pledges of help. The lukewarm response has prompted NATO Secretary-General George Robertson to warn that the credibility of the alliance is at stake. Afghanistan marks the first deployment outside Europe in NATO's 54-year history - as well as one of its "biggest challenges," he said.

The 18 non-US countries in the alliance have between them a total of 1.5 million regular troops as well as 7,000 helicopters and other air-power capabilities, officials say.

Despite this, ISAF in Kabul currently has only three helicopters, and relies on the US military to provide close air support, medical evacuations, and resupply.

"This is unacceptable. Other nations must step up to the plate or we will fail," says Maj. Kevin Arata of ISAF, adding that ISAF in Kabul is currently 20 percent undermanned.

In a boost to ISAF, NATO last week announced new pledges of about a dozen helicopters and hundreds of additional troops. These reportedly include a motorized infantry company from Norway's Telemark battalion, as well as troops from the Czech Republic, Belgian air-traffic controllers, and Spanish and Turkish intelligence specialists.

Far more military resources will be needed, however, for NATO to expand beyond Kabul and take over provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in other cities aimed at providing an umbrella of security for badly needed development projects. The US could provide some of those resources, participating under NATO. The goal is for the US and NATO to establish a total of 12 to 15 PRTs around the country within the next 18 months, each with a 100- to 200-strong force.

Still, a lack of public focus on Afghanistan in NATO countries means there is little popular backing for fresh deployments here. "[Afghanistan] is not visible on the collective radar. People don't understand the problems and the imperative," says Rice.

At the same time, NATO countries are reluctant to dispatch troops without a clear mission and exit strategy, officials say. "Once you commit troops to the ground it's difficult to pull them out and move them around," says Major Arata.

While focusing on peacekeeping, ISAF has also launched a pilot project in the capital this month aimed at demobilizing and disarming Afghan militia members. Already, about 1,200 volunteers have been identified from among the 30,000 to 40,000 militiamen in the Kabul area alone.

Another ISAF initiative aims at collecting heavy weapons - such as tanks and antiaircraft guns - from various Afghan militia forces, a process under way in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif.

"We believe that that's an important step for this country to have the heavy weapons brought in and turned in," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a visit to Mazar-e Sharif last week. If functional, such weapons could help equip the Afghan National Army, he said.

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