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.
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.
"Ashdown's a celebrity. He's the Michael Jackson of postconflict reconstruction," says Williams. "He was going to raise the profile of Afghanistan. Karzai was afraid he would be too powerful. So the Afghans shot themselves in the foot. Paddy Ashdown was the best chance to get someone with the right personality to get all the players into the same ring."
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) consists of some 42,000 troops from 39 countries stationed across Afghanistan The US has about 17,000 troops under NATO command and some 12,000 more involved in counterterrorism operations.
While the Bush administration is sending an additional 3,200 Marines soon, Mr. Gates will be seeking 7,500 more troops from two major allies who have been reluctant to face off with the Taliban.
A German newspaper published a leaked letter from Gates to Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, in which Gates demanded that Germany commit an additional 1,000 soldiers and send them to the restive south. But when ISAF agreements were made in 2002, the parliament voted to send forces its troops only if they were deployed in the relatively peaceful north.
It's unlikely the defense minister will urge a revisiting of the issue. "They won't budge because of the language that has been used for the past few days," says Jan Techau, of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The German reply to the Gates letter is a position they cannot abandon without losing face."
Mr. Techau says the public has had difficulty linking German security to Afghanistan because it has not suffered anything like the attacks in the London Underground. He says military action in Afghanistan is very unpopular.
"We are afraid of the voters. Our leaders do not tell them the truth – that what needs to be done in Afghanistan means a fight," he says. "Germany will pay a political price internationally. There are a lot of bad feelings from the Canadians, because we are not going to enter into hot combat, which everyone else has done. You cannot expect ... to have a say in the alliance when you ... always say 'no' to your allies."
"When [Nicolas] Sarkozy was elected, he said he was going to reconcile with America in general. And he said he would put France back into the NATO fold, into the apparatus. So the expectation now is that he will deliver more," says Mr. Bozo. But, he adds, "The old divides are appearing. It's about all the big issues. What is NATO's role? Are we fighting a war against terrorists?
"NATO won't fail in Afghanistan, but no one is going to win," he continues. "Afghanistan is a vast country, and the amount of troops [there] in proportion [to what is needed] is ridiculous. The notion that we are going to turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy is incredible."
Bozo says that what France is willing to contribute differs fundamentally from what the US wants. He says the Sarkozy administration will push for NATO to focus on political solutions and development, while the Americans will want to focus on a military resolution.
In London, Williams countered, "It's useless building schools and roads if there are going to be IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and the burning of schools. The alliance needs to have reform and a strategic discussion about what NATO means. If there is not an agreement, maybe it's time to do something else."