The alliance's mission in Afghanistan is in trouble. Nearly a year after NATO took over leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), its 6,400 troops are still largely restricted to the Afghan capital Kabul, and to the northern province of Konduz.
The alliance is having difficulties gathering together the extra forces and equipment necessary to extend its presence further into the provinces.
Meanwhile, security is deteriorating around the country, according to a coalition of some 50 aid organizations called the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. Nineteen aid workers have been killed so far in 2004.
In light of this, the agency has appealed to the Istanbul summit to seize what may be the "last chance" to establish security in that war-weary land.
London-based independent military consultant Alexandra Ashbourne says: "It's such a difficult time. I think we [countries in NATO] have to be very, very careful. [The Afghan mission] is on the threshold. There is now the potential for failure, and that's very, very depressing."
Ashbourne says that unless NATO can extend its authority over more of the country, there is a growing danger of instability. Elections are planned for September, and this key step towards the democratization of Afghanistan is at risk because of the security vacuum.
London-based analyst Mark Joyce, of the Royal United Services Institute, says he expects that the Istanbul summit will be preoccupied with that issue: "In Istanbul, it's quite clear there is going to be a difference between the media's emphasis there and what is actually discussed in reality. The media, not surprisingly, will focus on Iraq, and Iraq will certainly be high on the agenda. But the real issue -- and the NATO secretary-general was here [in London] last week, outlining that -- will be the issue of force generation."
By "force generation," Joyce means having real troops with real equipment ready to commit to real missions. The analyst says alliance chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has made clear that the time for commitments on paper is passed.
"He has made it quite clear that the NATO allies have to stop taking on new missions unless they are prepared to produce the troops to show those missions through,” Joyce says. “And this is something they have not done in Afghanistan. They are desperately short of troops there, and they need to raise two or three thousand (2,000 or 3,000) more in the course of the next six months. And this is an issue which he [de Hoop Scheffer] will be putting a great deal of emphasis on in Istanbul."
But boosting troop numbers In Afghanistan is easier said than done. NATO's dominant member, the United States, is stretched by engagement in Iraq, with some 135,000 troops deployed there. So is Britain. And NATO troops are also on the ground in Kosovo.
Another NATO member, Germany, has already reached its limit of 2,250 troops for ISAF as mandated by parliament and is unlikely to send more.
Another military analyst, Ian Kemp of Jane's security information group, says that in addition, not all NATO members are willing to take on an active combat role that the mission in Afghanistan implies.
"That is one of the most contentious [issues]. Whereas most of the NATO allies agree that the alliance should take on the provision of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, there is still some unease across the whole alliance as to whether NATO should actually take on responsibility for the combat mission, which is primarily in the southeastern part of Afghanistan, and that of course involves the hunting down of the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda," Kemp says.
At present, the fighting is being done mainly by a U.S.-led coalition of forces -- which is separate from the NATO-led ISAF -- and by the fledgling Afghan National Army.
The Istanbul summit will be the first attended by the seven countries that joined NATO in April -- namely Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia.
Leaders from 27 NATO partner states will also participate, including Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.