NATO defense ministers are meeting in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, to once again discuss strategy in Afghanistan.
Although no formal decisions are anticipated, the meeting has a special urgency.
Eight years after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, NATO leaders are warning that the country could slip from Western control and become a renewed haven for Islamic terrorism.
The ministers will also discuss the changed U.S. strategy on missile defense.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has asked U.S. President Barack Obama for up to 40,000 extra troops in addition to the 68,000 American soldiers already there. Most European allies, however, are unwilling to increase their own troop levels, putting the future NATO mission in the country at risk.
"The New York Times" reported on October 18 that McChrystal wrote in a report earlier this month that "Inadequate resources will likely result in failure.”
Speaking at the conference, NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that the cost of inaction in Afghanistan would be "far higher" than that of action.
"Leaving Afghanistan behind would, once again, turn the country into a training ground for Al-Qaeda. The pressure on [a] nuclear-armed Pakistan would be tremendous. Instability would spread throughout Central Asia. And it would only be a matter of time until we, here in Europe, feel the consequences of all of this."
Afghanistan itself is at a crossroads, with the August 20 presidential elections stymied by massive fraud. Earlier this week, a runoff was announced for November 7 between the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, and his strongest challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Significantly, Rasmussen did not repeat his earlier avowals that NATO will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes, no matter what. The war is increasingly less popular in the United States itself, while most European allies would like to see the alliance to pull out of the country in the not-too-distant future.
Decisions by individual allies not to increase their troop levels or reduce them point increasingly in that direction. Britain stands alone in having just announced the deployment of 500 extra soldiers to join the 8,000 British already there. Germany has rejected boosting its troop levels beyond the current 4,000 and the public mood of the country has turned firmly against the deployment. The same applies in Italy, which lost six men in a single suicide attack in Kabul in September. France has made it clear it won't me fielding any extra units. Canada and the Netherlands are due to pull out their contingents from the crucial Afghan south in 2011.
Correspondingly, U.S. and NATO planners are looking at ways of speeding up the training of Afghan military and police.
Backing A Strategy
NATO's broad aim now is "Afghanization"-- which Rasmussen described as a "push for Afghans themselves to look after their own country."
"That means, from a security point of view, Afghans taking lead responsibility province by province with international forces in a supporting role," he said.
Rasmussen also said "other international actors" must redouble their efforts to help with reconstruction and development, stressing that everyone's best interests are at stake.
"It is, in fact a very simple calculation -- we have to do more, if we want to be able to do less tomorrow," Rasmussen said.
But money is also tight in European capitals, as they are straining to cope with the effects of the global financial downturn.
Security remains an issue. Army and police trainers need troops to protect them, thus pulling them away from other duties.
Most importantly, Afghanistan's own institutions remain too weak to run the country. Rasmussen acknowledged this -- along, he said, with General McChrystal -- saying NATO must do "more and better" reconstruction and development work.
NATO's overriding goal now is, according to Rasmussen, to switch to a "supporting role" in Afghanistan.
Prominent critics are already questioning NATO strategy.
Paddy Ashdown, selected as the top UN envoy for Afghanistan in early 2008 but vetoed by Kabul, wrote in Britain's "Independent" newspaper on October 21 that a central government propped up by the West can function "in theory" only, as Afghanistan remains a "deeply decentralized country based around tribal structures." Consequently, Ashdown said, NATO nations should divert their aid away from the Karzai government towards increasing the capacity of local authorities.
Opium cultivation remains another bane of the country. A recent report released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says the drug trade, worth $65 billion a year, continues to finance the insurgency in the country's largely lawless Pashtun south.
Countering Missile Threat
Apart from Afghanistan, changing U.S. missile-defense plans are high on the agenda of the Bratislava meeting.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has been touring the region trying to allay fears that a recent U.S. decision not to build radar and missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic are a concession to Russia, which was implacably opposed to such a move.
In Warsaw on October 21, Biden said new U.S. plans would bolster the security of all allies from threats emanating from countries such as Iran.
"Our new, phased, adaptive approach to missile defense is designed to meet the growing threat, not only to the United States, but first and foremost to Europe," Biden said. "It is going to meet it with proven technology that will cover more of Europe, including Poland, and it will do it more efficiently than the previous system could have or did. It strengthens missile defense for Europe, it strengthens [NATO's] Article 5, and it strengthens the alliance deterrence capability."
The United States has also agreed to sell Poland batteries of Patriot ground-to-air missiles.