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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 22:04 GMT 23:04 UK
Afghan burden tasks Nato allies
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Noordwijk

Nato defence ministers in Noordwijk
Nato officially denies any crisis over Afghanistan
Tensions over Nato's mission in Afghanistan are clearly far from over, though the message from Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was one of reassurance.

Speaking at a meeting of Nato defence ministers in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk, he dismissed the idea that the mission was facing a crisis, and said some Nato countries had now offered to contribute more.

Despite a resurgent Taleban and pressure on some Nato governments - such as the Netherlands and Canada - to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, the Nato chief insisted the alliance was making good progress there, and would see the job through.

Although the US stepped up the pressure at the meeting, there were no offers of major reinforcements, though up to nine nations may now be willing to increase their contributions.

However, what seems to be promised are more soldiers to help train the Afghan National Army (ANA) rather than to take the fight to the Taleban, as the US would like.

Sharing the burden

America wants more nations to help with the war-fighting aspect of Nato's mission.

A US gunner looks out of a helicopter above Afghanistan, October 2007
The US has about 22,000 military personnel in Afghanistan

The US currently supplies half the overall foreign forces in Afghanistan, some 15,000 of them working on the Nato mission in the south, while Britain is the next largest contributor, with 7,700 troops fighting fierce battles with the Taleban in Helmand Province.

Some member-countries, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, are constrained by so-called national caveats, which restrict where they can station their forces and whether or not they are allowed to fight.

German troops, for example, are confined to the relatively peaceful north in a non-combat role.

German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung announced at the talks that his country would triple the number of military trainers embedded with Afghan units to more than 300.

France promised to send several dozen extra trainers to Uruzgan Province, where Dutch troops are based.

Solidarity appeal

Betraying a hint of the tensions underlying the meeting, Mr Jung rejected US calls for the German trainers to accompany Afghan units into the south, and criticised US calls for Nato allies to provide more troops.

"We need security and reconstruction and development: that is the wider concept," he said.

"That's why I think these calls simply for more and more military involvement are misguided."

So are Britain and the US being asked to do too much, while others do too little? Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insists not.

"They're shouldering an important part of the burden, given the fact that in the southern part of Afghanistan where they are, the going is tough from time to time," he said.

"I keep saying that the fewer national caveats the better, and the more financial and military solidarity the better."

Wavering

Britain itself sent out a strong message at the meeting that Nato must stick together as an alliance, if it is not to lose its credibility - and that nations wavering about long-term commitment must be supported and kept within the fold.

What you're seeing is some member states of Nato saying "we're part of this mission... but we won't take the risk that others are taking"
Dr Paul Cornish
Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House

The Dutch, for example, have 1,600 troops in Uruzgan province, but are under pressure at home to bring the troops back when their current commitment ends next autumn.

If the Dutch leave, that could have a knock-on effect on Canada, where opposition parties are keen to bring their troops' war-fighting contribution around Kandahar to an end.

Experts warn that time is running out to get it right, with reconstruction in Afghanistan progressing more slowly than expected, and the Taleban regaining some hold in the south, in parts that the ANA is not yet able to protect.

Nato commanders on the ground have also said they need more troops and equipment, though the secretary-general said that 90% of what had been promised had been delivered.

'Corrosive' divisions

Dr Paul Cornish, security expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, believes this mission is a crucial test of Nato's will.

"What you're seeing is some member states of Nato saying 'we're part of this mission, and we want the overall thing to achieve its goal but we won't take the risk that others are taking'," he said.

"That is divisive and it's corrosive at the heart of Nato, so there are some very fundamental problems that are being taken very seriously indeed at the highest levels."

Despite the tensions, though, Nato's allies are still agreed on one thing: the mission in Afghanistan cannot be allowed to fail - because as well as Afghanistan's future, Nato's credibility, too, is at stake.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer



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