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Nato at pains to dismiss Afghan tensions

By Caroline Wyatt and Rob Watson
Defence Correspondents

Troops in Afghanistan
Nato members say there is no troop allocation crisis in Afghanistan

Nato defence ministers have dismissed talk of a crisis over their operation in Afghanistan.

Meeting in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, the ministers are all keen to make clear that they believe progress is being made in Afghanistan, both at a military and civil level.

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insisted Afghanistan was a vastly better place than when the Taleban were in charge.

While challenges remained, he said he was still cautiously optimistic about the country's future.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said he had been encouraged by what he had heard from European allies about increasing their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) deployed in Afghanistan.

It was his blunt words - and stern letters to some of the US's European allies in the run-up to the meeting - that had stirred fresh talk of crisis within Nato.

Divisions once again emerged between those nations which felt they were shouldering too much of the fighting - mainly the US, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands - versus those alliance members with either national caveats on their troops' location or their ability to take part in combat missions - namely Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Greece.

Crisis, what crisis?

Yet just a few hours after Nato defence ministers sat around the table for lunch together in Vilnius, the meeting ended in harmony, with everyone apparently singing from the same hymn-sheet - their chorus: "Crisis, what crisis?"

I don't think that there's a crisis, I don't think there's a risk of failure
Robert gates
US Defence Secretary

Even Mr Gates said he felt that talk of a row had been overblown, insisting that progress had been made towards generating more contributions for Nato forces in Afghanistan.

"I don't think that there's a crisis, I don't think there's a risk of failure," he told a news conference.

"My view is that it represents potentially the opportunity to make further progress faster in Afghanistan if we had more forces there.

"But I'm realistic about politics here in Europe. My view is that governments here in Europe understand the importance of Afghanistan. They just aren't able to do certain kinds of things, and we understand that."

Despite those conciliatory words, Germany clearly felt it had been unfairly singled out ahead of the meeting over the Bundeswehr's contribution in the north of Afghanistan.

Isaf troops graph
On Thursday, it insisted that its 3,200 troops in Afghanistan were doing important work supporting reconstruction in the relatively stable north.

German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung had already announced that Germany would send an additional 200 troops as a quick reaction force to help in the north, which could also in theory be called upon to help Nato allies in need in the south.

But he made it clear that Germany was not able to deploy combat troops to the south.

"Within Nato, we have agreed on a reasonable share-out of tasks, which in my view is very wise," said Mr Jung in Vilnius. "I think our contribution in Afghanistan is sufficient."

Thomas Raabe, the German defence ministry spokesman, amplified that message in an interview with the BBC.

"Our allies might think we should do more in Afghanistan, but our message is that we are already the third largest troop-contributing nation and we are doing other things for the whole of Afghanistan," he said.

"I think people in Britain should be aware that we lost two world wars, and we have a different attitude to the question of soldiers, wars and blood."

Changing stances?

As for Britain, Defence Secretary Des Browne insisted that talk of a crisis within Nato was overblown.

"Of the 25 countries who have deployable forces in the Nato alliance, 12 of them are represented in the south and south-east of Afghanistan," he told the BBC.

Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Nato's chief remains optimistic about Afghanistan's future

"We have now seen that the French have been prepared to deploy important forces into the south, in small but significant numbers.

"We're hearing today that other countries are prepared to increase their forces. I spoke recently to the Polish chief of the defence staff, and they are going to increase their forces. So this is a progression."

Mr Browne concluded that Nato, "the most successful political and military alliance in the world, will survive this and will improve".

There were several hints that France may be about to change its stance, and could be the nation that - by April - commits more combat troops to the south, as Canada has demanded in return for keeping its forces fighting in Kandahar Province.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin confirmed Paris was considering a greater role in Afghanistan, although he did not give exact details, suggesting only that President Nicolas Sarkozy could announce a change in French policy at Nato's summit in April.

"My message to the Canadian public is be a bit patient," Mr Morin said, when asked whether France would meet Canada's demand for reinforcements. "We are studying several options."

Real solidarity or diplomacy?

So is this apparent outbreak of Nato solidarity real, or merely good diplomacy?

Certainly, there is a real sense among Nato officials in Vilnius that the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are not nearly as bad as often portrayed in the media.

There is also a feeling that genuine progress has been made since the days the Taleban were in power, progress for which the alliance is not always given credit.

All the alliance members say they are committed to Afghanistan for the long-term, whatever divisions there may be over how the burden is shared

But those internal tensions over burden-sharing have not gone away, and may never go away completely.

However, what is clear from the talks in Vilnius is that all the alliance members say they are committed to Afghanistan for the long-term, whatever divisions there may be over how the burden is shared.

Of course, the real test of all this apparent resolve will come at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April, where all will be waiting to see which nations finally come up with the extra combat troops to help fight the Taleban in the south.

And even then, major challenges remain for the alliance.

The operation in Afghanistan is a tough one and - most importantly - much still needs to be done to persuade the public in many Nato countries that the mission there is both achievable and worthwhile.

ISAF TROOP DEPLOYMENTS IN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan troops map
Countries contributing more than 1,000 troops as of December 2007
Canada 1,730
France 1,292
Germany 3,155
Italy 2,358
Netherlands 1,512
Poland 1,141
Turkey 1,219
UK 7,753
US 15,038
Source: ISAF



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