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Afghanistan strains NATO ties

Secretary of State Rice arrives in London Wednesday to address tensions among key allies.

By Laura J. WinterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2008

Change of Leadership: In Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province on Feb. 2, (l. to r.) outgoing British Maj. Gen. Jacko Page, US Gen. Dan McNeill, and Canada’s Maj. Gen. J.G.M. Lessard transferred the Regional Command South from British to Canadian hands.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP



US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the British capital Wednesday to try to bolster a battered NATO ally and address the alliance's efforts in a progressively more dangerous Afghanistan mission.

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Three major studies published last week concluded that economic and military initiatives to date lack the coherent strategy needed to block the return of the Taliban and Al Qaeda – or stop the burgeoning opium economy. The US and Britain, the lead military players in Afghanistan, have taken repeated beatings from lawmakers and allies about NATO's handling of the mission in the six years since the Taliban fell.

Many analysts say this year will test whether NATO and its Afghan partners can secure the country and build a functioning state. But the ties that bind NATO are fraying badly – and publicly – over just how much each member state wants to commit to turning Afghanistan around.

"It's starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about," says Michael Williams, director of the transatlan- tic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "The problems NATO is having in Afghanistan are just a symptom of what is wrong with the alliance. There are a lot disagreements about what NATO is and what it should be used for."

Mr. Williams adds that the issue is not a European versus an American problem. "Now you have this two-tier alliance. It is a coalition of the willing and the sort-of-willing," he says. "So the Germans aren't and the Canadians, the Brits and the Dutch are."

An exchange of pointed jabs is happening days before NATO defense ministers are scheduled to gather on Thursday in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to put the squeeze on Germany and France to commit more troops to Afghanistan's "hot zones" in the south.

Secretary Rice is expected to confer with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband in London on coordinating diplomatic efforts to convince NATO members to expand their military commitments in Afghanistan to include combat.

A NATO spokeswoman in Kabul notes that while the insurgency is not spreading, 70 percent of the violence occurs in 10 percent of the country: the south, where the Canadians, the British, and the Dutch are involved in difficult counterinsurgency operations.

The Canadians, who have about 2,500 troops operating out of Kandahar Air Base, have said that unless more equipment and 1,000 more troops are sent by the allies to support their efforts in the troubled province, they will leave when the term of their mandate ends in February 2009.

The British, who have committed some 7,800 troops over the past 22 months to battle the Taliban in Helmand Province, are angry as well, still stinging from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's very public recent rebukes.

NATO ISAF Forces in Afghanistan, as of Dec. 5, 2007

Thirty-nine nations contribute to the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)

The Top 10:

United States – 15,038

United Kingdom – 7,753

Germany – 3,155

Italy – 2,358

Canada – 1,730

Netherlands – 1,512

France – 1,292

Turkey – 1,219

Poland – 1,141

Australia – 892

Source: Nato

NATO's Afghan presence