The patience of the countries that are bearing the brunt of the fighting against the insurgency in Afghanistan's restive south is wearing thin. More than 200 international troops were killed in the country last year in the heaviest fighting since the ousting of the Taliban government in 2001, and there is strong domestic pressure on the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, and Romania to pull their troops out.
The United States and Britain are urging other allies to join the fight in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but no one is accepting the offer. Germany and Italy are staying in the relatively safer north and west, respectively, a situation which NATO officials say is unlikely to change.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that he will send another 1,100 troops to the U.S.-controlled eastern part of Afghanistan, but this is unlikely to help the situation in the south, where the overwhelming majority of the fighting is taking place. The United States has begun deploying 3,200 marines to Helmand and Kandahar on what it insists will be a temporary mission.
With no military solution in sight, NATO is turning to other organizations for help. Alliance leaders have invited top officials of the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and other organizations to attend a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on April 3.
In Brussels on March 27, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the meeting will be an "illustration of top-level international commitment" to Afghanistan.
"The meeting in and of itself is a demonstration of what we call the comprehensive approach to Afghanistan," Appathurai said. "That this is not simply a military issue -- it is very much a comprehensive issue relating to the full spectrum of areas in which there needs to be international support for Afghan efforts, and that includes governance, it includes reconstruction and development, and, of course, the military aspects as well."
NATO leaders will approve two "comprehensive" strategy documents at Bucharest. One, to be made public, will amount to a restatement of NATO's commitment to Afghanistan. The main focus of the other -- a classified document -- will be on the time frame of that commitment.
Officials say that on the eve of the summit, there is no consensus among the allies. While a minority led by the United States would like NATO to vouch for Afghanistan's security for at least a generation, most allies are loath to extend that guarantee beyond five years.
NATO and Afghan officials hope the quickest route to security, and respite for Western troops, will be to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan security forces, especially a beefed-up Afghan National Army (ANA).
The Afghan government enthusiastically concurs, trying to make the most of NATO's presence. Speaking from Kabul by videolink to journalists in Brussels on March 27, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said NATO's first priority should be setting the ANA up on its own feet.
"We strongly believe that having more ANA [forces] is the best solution," Wardak said. "It is cheaper economically, it is politically less complex, and it will also save lives for our [Western] friends and allies."
But it appears the ANA -- which is expected to have 70,000 fully trained and equipped troops by May -- will need many years before it is ready to fully take over from NATO.
Wardak said that the ANA most urgently needs attack aircraft, transport planes, and heavy weaponry.
The United Arab Emirates and the Czech Republic have agreed to donate Soviet-manufactured helicopters to Afghanistan, and NATO will finance the purchase of C-27 transport planes from Italy.
Major General Robert Cone, a U.S. officer at the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan who heads ANA training, said on March 26 that Afghanistan's future air force will not be fully operational until 2013.
Cone also said that although the ANA will reach 80,000 troops in March 2009, this will not be enough to secure the country -- even when backed up by the 47,000 NATO troops currently in the country and 16,000 separate U.S. troops. He said NATO and Afghan officials are currently studying the numbers needed to make the ANA self-sufficient.
In a subtle but distinct shift of emphasis from Defense Minister Wardak, Cone said the key to securing the country lies in building up the police force. He said the "local police are the face of the government on the ground." He noted, however, that the Afghan National Police "lags by some years" behind the ANA in its development, citing as a main reason the "relatively many opportunities for corruption" that are open to police officers.
Many are also illiterate and not qualified for the job. Cone said that out of some 17,000 police who were tested recently, some 8,000 were dismissed as not being up to the required standard. There is a U.S.-led retraining effort under way in the provinces -- but that has so far covered only seven of Afghanistan's 364 districts. Cone said that while there are 1,300 mainly U.S. trainers on the ground, another 800 are needed -- plus an additional 1,500 troops to provide security for the trainers.
A 190-strong EU police-training mission is about to get off the ground one year behind schedule. However, EU personnel will confine themselves to supervising higher-level reforms in Kabul and the provincial centers.
'A Localized Issue'
NATO commanders play down the threat posed by insurgents. NATO's supreme commander in Europe, General Bantz Craddock, told RFE/RL on March 14 that the unrest is confined to a relatively small part of the country.
"If we look at the past year, we find that over 70 percent of the security problems are located in 10 percent of the districts," Craddock said." Six percent of the people live in those districts. So we can see it's a localized issue here."
"That's no solace or consolation to the people who live there," he added. "On the other hand, I think that we can see there's now opportunity for some 94 percent [of the Afghan people] to see significant progress. We've just got to push the efforts to do that, not only with the Afghan government leaders, but also with the international community."
This, however, glosses over the fact that the stronghold of the insurgency in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces is also the epicenter of Afghanistan's massive opium industry. Both provinces also border Pakistan, and NATO officials admit that the local Pashtun tribes do not recognize the highly porous border.
General Cone and Defense Minister Wardak both said the Afghan security forces must eventually be "capable of defending Afghanistan."
However, the country must be won first, and this is unlikely to happen as long as the southern insurgency continues to provide a launching pad for attacks in the west and the north -- which also contain sizeable pockets of the ethnic-Pashtun population. An increasing number of Western officials in the country believe Afghanistan cannot be won without coming to some kind of understanding with the Taliban.
RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report