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US sees Afghanistan as test of NATO role

At this week's summit, the alliance's success against Taliban insurgents was seen as key to its long-term relevance.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2006


The question looming over NATO's summit in this Baltic country this week was essentially this: What are friends for?

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With the focus on the NATO-commanded counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan, leaders from President George Bush to Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to know if just a few NATO countries would continue to carry the weight and face the worst of the danger. Or, would more of NATO's 26 members help out their partners with more troops – and fewer restrictions on how their troops can be used?

"Clearly there is still work to be done" to equalize the tasks of NATO assignments, says NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

The answer was only partially positive. At the close of the summit Wednesday, a few countries had pledged more forces for the 33,000-troop operation, while others – in particular Germany, France, Spain, and Italy – loosened restrictions on "emergency" engagement of their forces, so that they now can be used for the evacuation of injured NATO soldiers.

The controversy over who is doing the heavy lifting – and taking the worst of the fire – in Afghanistan is not just a row among friends. NATO's operation in Afghanistan, and controversy over burden-sharing in the fight against a resurgent Taliban in particular, dominated a summit originally envisioned as a venue for furthering the alliance's transformation from a cold-war institution defending Western Europe. But the Afghanistan debate largely pushed other big issues aside, with some leaders saying that success of the NATO operation there would be crucial to the alliance's long-term worth as a global force for peace and security.

"Contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan is a just cause vital to our collective security and our shared values," Mr. De Hoop Scheffer told leaders at Riga's closing session Wednesday. "Together with other international actors, we will stand with the Afghan people for the long term to help them build a democratic country free from terror and drugs."

Employing a cautiously optimistic tone, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. James Jones said, "Many nations involved in Afghanistan reduced or eliminated many of the national restrictions imposed for the use of their forces, known as caveats, and this will now allow the commander of the mission to more effectively use troops throughout Afghanistan."

Unequal share of burden?

The controversy sparked in September, when European countries rejected calls from fellow NATO countries that they send part of their forces based in relatively peaceful parts of Afghanistan to reinforce efforts in the south, where the Taliban is most active. The issue was kept alive in Riga by Canadian officials, who noted that their troops in the south have suffered 36 deaths since March, while Germany, with a slightly larger force in the country, has lost no soldiers this year.