Bigger role for NATO in Afghanistan?

60-plus nations Tuesday will discuss support for the country over the next five years.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Delegates from more than 60 nations will sit down Tuesday to recommit themselves to Afghanistan's future, as the impoverished country combats a deadly insurgency and struggles to stem the opium trade.

The two-day London Conference on Afghanistan marks the next phase in state building after the 2001 Bonn Process, which culminated in September with the first parliamentary elections in 30 years.

The United States, which is providing the bulk of the foreign aid and military muscle to Afghanistan, is hoping that more of the mission can be shouldered by the international community - particularly NATO members. It is the military component that may prove to be the most frustrating and troublesome for the US because at least one NATO ally is showing signs of reneging on its promise.

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The meeting is expected to produce an agreement, called the Afghanistan Compact that will serve as the playbook for tackling security, narcotics, and governance problems over the next five years. And, in theory, it should make all parties accountable for keeping promises. Some of the targets for 2011, according to the Associated Press, will be a tripling of the Afghan Army in size to 70,000, and a reduction in the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 3 percent per year.

Experts and Afghans worry that despite the expected monetary and military pledges and displays of goodwill, the international community's tangible commitment to Afghanistan will continue to be anything but robust.

"Compared to other modern post-conflict situations [and the] aid given, it is at the bottom of the barrel so far," says Ayesha Khan an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "It's still minimal investment. And with minimal investment, obviously, the outcome will be minimal results."

Ms. Khan and many Afghan experts contrast Afghanistan with Kosovo. In the first four years after major fighting ended, Kosovo received $1.8 billion in international aid for a population of just below 2 million. In the four years after the Taliban was forced from power in 2001, Afghanistan, a nation of approximately 29 million, was pledged $15 billion at various donor meetings, but received $4.7 billion.

The US government announced on Friday that at the conference it will make a "major financial contribution" intended to cover both economic and humanitarian aid as well as military activities.

But the US military has said it is drawing down its forces in Afghanistan from the current level of about 19,000 to 16,500. The Pentagon would also like to intensify its focus on eastern Afghanistan, especially along the Pakistan border.

To meet those goals, the US is shifting responsibility for the restive south, which has seen a recent spate of roadside bombs and suicide bombings, to NATO.

Canada is sending 1,250 troops to Kandahar Province next month. On Thursday the British government committed to sending 3,300 paratroopers to take over Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and the top poppy-producing province.

However, Holland is rethinking its promise to replace US troops in Uruzgan. The Netherlands, a NATO signatory, has been slated to send up to 1,100 of its soldiers to Uruzgan, the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and one of the country's most dangerous provinces.

Many Dutch parliamentarians are having second thoughts after watching Afghanistan experience a sharp rise in insurgent violence, that has claimed 1,600 lives - making last year the deadliest since the Taliban's ouster in 2001. Earlier this month during the US ambassador to Afghanistan's visit to Uruzgan's capital, Tirinkot, a suicide bomber killed 10 people.

"Last year was the most violent year so far, and that gave pause, especially given the fact that a lot of the European countries think that the United States is trying to dump the Afghanistan counter-terrorism mission on them," says Mike Williams with the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London.

Dutch parliamentarian Lousewies van der Laan is the deputy leader of the Democratic 66, a junior party in the ruling coalition and a group leading efforts to stop a Dutch deployment to Afghanistan's south. She says her party objects to the deployment because the mission assigned to her country doesn't comport with facts on the ground. Ms. van der Laan says the Dutch were told they were going to Tirinkot on a reconstruction mission, to form a Provincial Reconstruction Team, which she said would be impossible to implement when the area is in turmoil.

"I'm very willing to ask soldiers to risk their lives on foreign soil for a sensible mission. But I'm not going to ask them to do that if it's not clear that they could ever achieve the objectives that were put to them," van der Laan says. "At the same time I don't want to raise the expectations of the Afghan people saying, 'We're going to bring stability to Uruzgan,' when we're going to be holed up in our compound for two years. What are we going to achieve with that?"

The Dutch have been burned by ill-defined missions in the past. In 1995 Serbian troops surrounded the UN-designated safe-haven of Srebrenica in Bosnia and threatened to kill the lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers stationed there. When the Dutch were allowed to leave, Serbian forces massacred 8,000 Muslim men. The debacle brought down the Dutch government. The Dutch parliament plans to vote on the Uruzgan proposal Thursday.

"The lesson is: Know what you are going to be doing. Don't raise hopes and expectations when you can't live up to them. Make sure that you can also get yourself out of a situation and that you do not have to rely on allies that may not actually show up," van der Laan says. "Now when we actually apply this historical lesson and when we are asking these questions ... people are saying, 'You Dutch are shirking your responsibility. And you're afraid to go to a dangerous area.' "

Earlier this month NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the Netherlands' indecision was damaging NATO's solidarity. And Paul Bremer III, who is a former American ambassador to the Netherlands, warned that unless the Netherlands agreed to go to Uruzgan, Dutch interests could suffer in the US.

"It is good that these debates are under way, but signs of hesitation will not help anybody," said Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah Monday.

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