Can NATO Survive Afghanistan’s Killing Fields?

Can NATO Survive Afghanistan’s Killing Fields?

Six weeks in hell -- or, more precisely, in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. That sums up the brutal fighting endured by the NATO troops who took over from U.S. troops in the area at the end of July. But while British, Canadian and Dutch troops have had an unexpectedly hot reception, pleas from the area British commander calling for other NATO countries to "pull their weight" and commit 2,500 more troops to the southern war have fallen on deaf ears. Though 1,000 more Polish troops were announced last week as "on way" to the region, it had nothing to do with the combat problems on the ground -- and they won't arrive until February 2007. All of which begs key questions about NATO's commitment to prosecute the Afghan campaign to a speedy military conclusion -- and about the future of NATO itself.

At a key meeting of the 37 NATO member nations in Mons, Belgium, on Sept. 13, calls for reinforcements were met with an array of excuses and no new promise of troops. News of the 1,000 Polish troops, a move that was apparently already in the mix, only filtered out later. Chief among the excuses were self-imposed rules of engagement. The Germans have 2,500 soldiers in the north engaged exclusively in reconstruction work. But their rules of engagement preclude them from being moved into the combat zones. Others are plainly concerned about the political repercussions of soldiers coming home in body bags. All of which leaves the British, Canadian and Dutch forces, together with a handful of Australian and Estonian troops, in an extremely precarious military position.

No one expects the Americans to come up with more troops. The United States is, of course, heavily committed in Iraq, and the 2,500 NATO and 18,000 non-NATO U.S. troops in Afghanistan are themselves embroiled in intense fighting in the east of the country. The signs are that Britain, with NATO's largest NATO contingent of 5,400 troops, twice the size of any other force, may be forced to send even more, unless NATO's "coalition of the reluctant" break ranks.

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