Page last updated at 22:59 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Increasing Afghan challenges for Nato

Defence ministers gather for the Nato summit in Krakow
Defence ministers gathered in Krakow for the Nato summit

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News, Krakow

Nato defence ministers meeting amid the glacial beauty of Krakow skated their way over many of the difficulties surrounding the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.

There was no getting away from the realities on the ground, though, amid what President Barack Obama recently termed a "deteriorating situation".

Nato's secretary general acknowledged that the mission in Afghanistan was not going as the bloc had hoped, as he delivered a bleak assessment on its progress.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the south and east of the country were riven by insurgency, while drugs and a lack of effective government had only increased Afghans' frustration.

However, he said failure in Afghanistan was not an option for the alliance.

"We cannot afford the price of failure in Afghanistan," he said.

"Instability in an already highly unstable region, a safe haven for international terrorism and massive suffering for the Afghan people is simply too much to accept. "Which is why we'll see all members of the team, Afghan and international, pull closer together and pull harder in 2009."

Russian objections

As ministers arrived in Poland for their informal meeting, MPs in Kyrgyzstan voted to close an American air base which forms part of a key supply route for US forces in Afghanistan.

That only added to a lengthy list of difficult issues facing Nato members.

The ball is absolutely in Europe's court now and we need to pick it up if we're going to be seen to be responsible, effective allies of the US
John Hutton
UK defence secretary

Many suspect that Russian pressure was behind the Kyrgyz move to shut the US base, illustrating another problem Nato is struggling with: the need to win Moscow's support for its mission in Afghanistan despite continuing discussions with Georgia and Ukraine about moving towards Nato membership over Russian objections.

However, James Appathurai, the spokesman for the secretary general, said the closure of Manas Airbase should not affect Nato's operations in Afghanistan.

"Nato has not been using that base but certain allies do use it. They are looking for alternatives and I am reassured that there are alternatives."

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also played down the significance of the move.

"Manas is an important base, but it's not irreplaceable," he told journalists.

"We are going to continue to work the problem with the Kyrgyz. We have not resigned ourselves to this being the last word. "We have looked at alternatives and have been talking to a number of different countries."

Drug seizures

Nato's secretary general was keen to play up some of the positives, despite an obvious reluctance among most Nato allies here to offer more combat forces for the mission in Afghanistan, even after the US announced plans to deploy an additional 17,000 soldiers.

Mr Scheffer said there were now a total of 56,000 troops in Afghanistan under Nato's ISAF command, from 41 different countries, and that voter registration for Afghanistan's elections - scheduled for August - had gone well.

Nato troops in Afghanistan
Nato has 56,000 troops in Afghanistan

He also cited four operations in which 11 drug laboratories were captured, and $50m (35m) in drugs seized by Nato forces, including a joint British-Afghan operation.

However, a big question mark still hangs over just how much more Nato's members might be willing to commit in terms of extra combat troops.

Despite America's increase, many others have made clear they are already doing as much as they feel able to, especially in nations where public support for the mission is limited.

UK Defence Secretary John Hutton said Britain was already punching above its weight in Afghanistan, as the second-largest contributor of Nato forces in Afghanistan, and that it was up to other countries to help.

"Our view has always been very clear: Nato needs to do more," he told the BBC.

"The European members of Nato need to do more.

"There needs to be fairer burden-sharing of responsibilities, particularly in those really hard areas where what we need are combat forces.

"The ball is absolutely in Europe's court now and we need to pick it up if we're going to be seen to be responsible, effective allies of the US."

Yet his US counterpart, Mr Gates, was unusually muted on the issue.

UK Defence Secretary John Hutton and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates
UK Defence Secretary John Hutton (L) called for more European action

It is not clear whether that was because America has now lost hope of anyone else offering significantly more combat troops, or whether Washington has decided that other contributions - of funding and civilian aid - may be the best they can realistically hope for.

Nonetheless, Nato's leadership is still hoping that some countries will use the alliance's 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg in April, during President Obama's first visit to Europe, to announce their willingness to do more.

Germany has said it is likely to send around 600 extra troops to the more peaceful north to help with security during the Afghan elections.

But for now, it looks as though the US, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and a handful of others will continue to do the lion's share of the fighting - and the dying - in Afghanistan.

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