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

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

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.

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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.

President Bush also focused on the issue, noting in a speech at Latvia University Tuesday that "this alliance was founded on a clear principle: An attack on one is an attack on all. That principle holds true," he added, "whether the attack is on our home soil or on our forces deployed on our NATO mission abroad."

French President Jacques Chirac responded Wednesday by announcing that France would allow "case by case" emergency assignment of its troops outside Kabul. But he gave a flat "non" to calls for additional troops – offering instead some additional materiel, including additional helicopters. Spain said its troops could be used in "exceptional circumstances" to evacuate wounded soldiers, but not for combat.

Bush left Riga directly after the traditional group photo Wednesday for talks in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the president came away from the summit "encouraged" by the substantive discussions and "the commitment to success" in Afghanistan, according to senior White House officials.

Still, the questions over deployment "caveats" and burden-sharing in Afghanistan will continue to rattle the alliance, some experts say. "Frankly, if an alliance does not face collectively and equally the central threats to its members – and by that I mean the terrorist threat and security challenges coming out of the broader Middle East today – then that alliance will not be central to their thinking," says Ronald Asmus, director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels.

New 'pre-members'

Yet such doubts have not weakened the alliance's attractiveness to other countries. As evidence of that, NATO leaders overcame their lingering resistance and invited Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to become "partners" of the Euro-Atlantic Council – essentially pre-membership status. Some NATO countries, including the US, had resisted this step because they consider Serbia and Bosnia less than fully cooperative with the United Nations war crimes tribunal. They wanted to see first the arrests of two former Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, as goodwill gestures.

In the end, even the US lifted its opposition, with some officials citing as a deciding factor a letter from reformist Serbian President Boris Tadic, in which he called on NATO to send a signal of support to democratic forces in his country.

The NATO leaders' final communique does call on Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to "cooperate fully" with the UN tribunal and says NATO will "closely monitor" those efforts.

Rapid-reaction force

Offsetting to a certain degree the modest progress on deployments in Afghanistan was De Hoop Scheffer's declaration that NATO's new 25,000-strong rapid-reaction force is fully operational. The force, envisioned as a means of putting NATO quickly on the scene of security and humanitarian emergencies, was first tested last year in response to the Pakistan earthquake. The new force is expected to lead over time to increased flexibility and "interoperability" of forces from more than two dozen countries.

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