AFGHANISTAN: A CHANCE OR A TRAP FOR NATO?


30.11.06
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Alexander Bogatyrev)

Afghanistan is one country where Russia is ready to cooperate with NATO, as the latest meeting of the NATO-Russia Council showed. The bloc, however, needed time to mull the offer over. The first day of the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, which discussed Afghanistan, provided the answer.
Afghanistan is a complicated and painful problem for the organization. Some say the country will decide its future. Five years after the beginning of the operation, NATO is coordinating the international effort in Afghanistan. This removes the ambiguity that prevailed when U.S. and NATO troops acted separately even though the Untied States is a NATO member.
The operation in Afghanistan was expected to give NATO a second lease on life after the end of the Cold War. The Taliban seemed to be the answer to the question of the bloc’s objectives and adversaries.
But the meeting in Riga showed that Afghanistan is turning out to be an unbearably high price to pay for the preservation and expansion of the bloc.
At present NATO has to ensure security both in the relatively calm northern provinces of the country and in the south and southeast, where the Taliban are the true masters. Their autumn offensive proved that they have reinforced their positions and are gradually changing their tactics, going over from a guerrilla war to well-organized offensive and defensive operations. Moreover, they are now more frequently attacking in large groups of 300-400.
Foreign troops and Afghan government forces are sustaining heavy losses, increasingly as a result of terrorist attacks by suicide bombers, which is a new element. This year, suicide bombers have staged more than 140 attacks, which makes Afghanistan increasingly reminiscent of Iraq.
NATO does not have enough forces to deal with this new situation, and therefore its troops are mostly hiding in their bases and strongholds, only rarely staging raids against the enemy.
Some participants in the Riga summit called for increasing NATO forces in Afghanistan, but such entreaties by the U.S., Britain and Canada have been rejected by the European NATO members (Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Italy, Norway and Denmark).
They presented their claims to Washington during the NATO summit, accusing the Pentagon of supplying incorrect information to its allies and deliberately removing some Taliban groups that cooperate with Americans from the line of fire. The allies’ pleas for air support often remain unheeded; worse still, Europeans are sometimes hit by friendly fire from the U.S. Air Force.
It also turned out that American units have earned a bad reputation with the locals, so that the Dutch and Belgian units had to change the color of their fatigues to be more easily distinguishable from the Americans.
It became clear in Riga that the NATO command intends to replenish its troops in Afghanistan by rallying the assistance of candidate countries and newcomers. Georgia and Ukraine have hastened to pledge to send their troops to Afghanistan. Poland has decided to increase its group there to 1,000, Estonia will increase its 80-strong force by 50% and provide small arms, and Latvia will send an additional 20 servicemen. Bulgaria intends to send weapons and munitions, and Romania has agreed to dispatch a motorized battalion.
Croatia is wary of the request, or rather the order, to redeploy its troops from the relatively calm northern provinces to the unquiet south, and Lithuania has flatly refused to comply.
The newcomers’ attitude is logical. Firstly, a minor increase in their numbers will be not enough to ensure control of the territory. Secondly, the root cause of tensions in Afghanistan is the problems Americans promised to solve five years ago – to defeat the Taliban within two or three years, to stabilize the political situation, create the foundations for economic prosperity, rebuild infrastructure, create jobs, ensure safety, and address the drug problem. They have not kept any of their promises, and so the new losses NATO will inevitably sustain will be useless.
Moscow is watching NATO’s internal conflicts with alarm. These disputes came to the fore in Riga and are growing more acute with the admission of new members. Russian politicians have always warned that a weak NATO would not be a suitable partner for the Kremlin, and that Afghanistan’s grave problems call for all European countries to cooperate.
The summit in Riga has confirmed and reinforced Russia’s concerns. -0-