NATO seeks to revamp Afghan mission

April 1st, 2008 - 10:03 am ICT by admin  

By Nicholas Rigillo
Brussels, April 1 (DPA) Judging a war used to be so much easier: one side would advance and the other would retreat. Eventually, one of the two would wave a white flag and surrender. But 21st century warfare is far more complex. Ask an expert, which side is winning in Afghanistan, and you receive puzzling replies like: “NATO is not losing.”

One big obstacle to clear-cut answers is that today’s enemies tend to be plain-clothed insurgents who use terrorist-like tactics, rather than soldiers in uniform shooting from trenches.

Another is that the goals of modern wars have become far more sophisticated. The aim now is not simply to liberate a country from an evil dictator, but also bring democracy, security and possibly prosperity to its people.

And in the case of Afghanistan, things get even more complicated. NATO’s fight against the Taliban involves an alliance of some 40 countries, 14 of which are not even NATO members. They come with different languages, histories, military capabilities and political sensibilities.

Not surprisingly, their governments don’t always share the same objectives.

In a July 2006 speech, the former overall commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General David Richards, said the ISAF’s aim was “to provide the security within which development can take place”.

Such vagueness has allowed the allies to focus on different priorities. For some, the ISAF is mostly a counter-terrorism operation, for others, it is all about reconstruction and development, others still are chiefly concerned with stopping Afghan exports of illegal drugs.

Amid such confusion, NATO has risked evolving into what US Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently billed a “two-tier alliance”, with some of its members willing to confront the Taliban and risk their soldiers in Afghanistan’s volatile south, and others preferring to focus on training and reconstruction in its less restive regions.

Christopher Langton, a retired colonel and a leading defence expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that when it comes to Afghanistan, NATO needs a more comprehensive strategy, more helicopters, better coordination on the ground, and one common goal.

“Above all, it needs to transform tactical gains into strategic successes,” Langton told DPA.

This means that when British soldiers secure control of an area in the Taliban-infested Helmand province, for instance, more efforts must be made to help non-governmental organisations or other civilian agencies move in while preventing the insurgents from re-capturing it.

Officials in Brussels say one of the main topics of debate at the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest will be the definition of a new mission statement for Afghanistan.

This will address fundamental questions like: “Why we are here? What do we want? What capabilities are necessary?” one diplomat said.

Haggling over the statement’s exact wording is still under way, and military experts fear it might provide some members of the alliance with the excuse to push for a timetabled exit strategy.

“This would be a big mistake,” Langton said, noting that such a demand would be strongly resisted by the military on the grounds that it would provide the Taliban with a significant advantage.

Meanwhile, several member states are expected to meet US and Canadian calls for more troops. France recently vowed to send 1,000 soldiers, while the Czech and Polish government have also promised reinforcements to the ISAF’s 43,250-strong contingent.

And the US government has since moved to ease tension within NATO following a series of accusations by Gates, who in a January interview with the Los Angeles Times complained that some US allies “don’t know how to do counter-insurgency operations”.

Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in the Afghan insurgency, making it the deadliest year since the 2001 US-led invasion.

So far this year, more than 30 international soldiers have died in Afghanistan, the latest victim being a Danish soldier operating near the Helmand city of Gerishk.

And as the snow begins to melt, the Taliban are promising yet another bloody spring offensive.

While few believe this is unlikely to succeed, experts insist NATO must do its utmost to ensure it can prevail in Afghanistan.

They may not be able to tell for certain who is winning in Afghanistan, but they know one thing for sure: failure there would raise serious doubts among many allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe, about the benefits of membership, just as NATO begins to face new and difficult challenges from the east.

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