Afghanistan Clouds NATO Summit

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Leaders of NATO's 26 member states gather this week in the Latvian capital, Riga, for a summit that will trumpet the solidarity of the world's most successful military alliance. The scripts have been largely written and surprises are unlikely. But as Christoph Bertram, the dean of German security experts, recently noted, the affair will be "like a Christmas service for agnostics, who for most of the year do not pray together or sing from the same hymnbook." The question of what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should do and become has been a subject of often deep disagreement since the Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991. Here's a snapshot of where the alliance stands today.

How tough is its fight in Afghanistan? Tougher than most thought it would be when NATO first deployed forces in August 2003 to help the nascent Afghan government maintain security. "If we fail in Afghanistan it could be the end of the alliance," says Ronald D. Asmus, director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a security think tank in Brussels. "It would be like losing the Korean War at the beginning of the cold war." There's not a single NATO member state who would argue otherwise, yet the trend line is not encouraging. This year has been the deadliest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001: insurgent and terrorist attacks have killed some 3,700 people since January, including at least 143 international troops. The insecurity is reversing economic gains as foreign aid workers withdraw from dangerous areas. What NATO once considered a stabilization mission has become a war-fighting one.

Are the 31,000 troops in Afghanistan enough? More troops could be put to good use: NATO has 16,000 soldiers in Kosovo, which is less than 2% the size of Afghanistan. But with major contributing countries already stretched in Iraq, Kosovo and Lebanon, a big infusion of new soldiers is not realistic. So the Riga horse-trading will concentrate on a related problem: that commanders often can't deploy existing troops as they would like because of national limits—or "caveats"—on their use. U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are doing most of the frontline fighting; support from many of the other 33 countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force [ISAF ] ranges from secondary to symbolic. At Tuesday night's dinner with other NATO leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush is likely to take up the demands of ISAF commander General David Richards that national governments loosen the strings. He will get support from Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski, who told TIME: "What is the use of having the troops there if you can't use them when they are needed?"

Will that appeal work? Not yet. Germany, the third biggest troop contributor to ISAF, has been the focus of the caveat debate because its 2,900 troops are restricted to the more secure regions of Kabul and the north. Karsten Voigt, coordinator for U.S.-German relations in the Foreign Ministry, says he is under constant pressure to do more in Afghanistan: in Washington last month, he says, one interlocutor told him that "Germans have to learn how to kill." Berlin will not budge, though, since neither the government nor the public has the stomach for putting German soldiers in harm's way. Mindful of that political reality, Bush isn't likely to push for a sea change. Nevertheless, it was only seven years ago, in Kosovo, that Germany first committed combat troops to a NATO mission at all. Over time, if Germany moves into a foreign-policy role consonant with its economic weight, a more self-assured stance might become politically acceptable.

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