General James L. Jones, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, reminded the conference how the alliance remains hamstrung by the tight rein many allies keep on their troops.
we'll fail [in] a lot of things. We'll fail [with] the democratic
process, the rule of law, human rights, everything."
According to Jones, various limitations imposed by countries on the use of their troops in Afghanistan mean NATO and its allies operate at "85 percent" of their capacity -- not a huge problem under ordinary circumstances, but a serious shortfall in a high-intensity combat environment.
However, Jones also conceded that military power alone will not solve the problem for NATO.
No Choice But Reconstruction
"The exit strategy, in my view, for Afghanistan, has more to do with fusing the international reconstruction and development efforts in support of whatever military operations [that are taking place] in such a way that we absolutely must tackle the counternarcotics problem more successfully; we absolutely must reform, help reform the judicial system because that gets to crime and corruption," Jones said.
"We absolutely must reform the police effort so that we have quality and quantity in the amounts that are need to secure the villages in the region," he added.
Jones said that, bogged down in a campaign against elusive insurgents, NATO is facing "death by a 1,000 IEDs [improvised explosive devices]" in Afghanistan. Eventually, he said, the only way to turn the tide is to reconstruct the country.
Jones' analysis was backed up by Canada's foreign minister, Peter MacKay, who said Afghans have an urgent need for "roads, schools, hospitals," what he summed up as "a semblance of ordinary life." MacKay said the lack of progress in the south of the country especially is having a devastating effect on the local population.
Wider War On Terror
Both Jones and MacKay sought to put the struggle in Afghanistan into wider perspective, pointing out that NATO had become involved after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The goal the alliance therefore needs to keep in sight is to prevent Afghanistan reverting into a terrorist haven.
Another participant in the conference, Zalmay Rasul, Afghanistan's national security adviser, said that Kabul too sees terrorism and the spread of religious extremism as global threats that must be defeated.
Rasul said countering the flourishing drug trade -- something that NATO has so far shunned -- is key to success in Afghanistan, that if "we don't succeed [in making] Afghanistan a [drug-free] country, we'll fail [in] a lot of things. We'll fail [with] the democratic process, the rule of law, human rights, everything."
Rasul also called on Pakistan to close its borders to Taliban fighters crossing into Afghanistan.
General Jones said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has good contacts with the Pakistani military, but indicated that securing full political cooperation from Islamabad is more difficult. He warned that the threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan could become a regional problem without "short- term" advances in combating it.
Is Afghanistan Worth It?
Another panelist, German analyst Christoph Bertram, reminded the audience that some important allies have differing views on what is at stake in Afghanistan.
Bertram said Afghanistan is not another "Fulda Gap" for NATO -- a strategically vital strip of land between East and West Germany during the Cold War thought to form the most likely bridgehead of a Soviet attack on the West.
Instead, Bertram said, Afghanistan for NATO is more akin to what Vietnam was for the United States -- a failure the alliance can afford to walk away from.
"Transformation for NATO means to accept that stabilization is different from defending your territory, and by putting them in the same basket, you are not doing a great service, you're confusing everybody," he said. "Now, quite clearly, we have to stay the course as much as we can. But we also must ask ourselves, again, and again, and again, and regularly do that, and together, whether what we're doing [is worth it]."
It fell to Afghan official Rasul to find more poignant and rousing arguments in support of a continued and determined NATO presence in his country. Rasul earned ripples of applause by recalling Afghanistan's long struggle against the Soviet Union, at the time the oppressor of many of today's NATO allies.
"We are in Riga because Afghanistan has contributed something to that. The fact that today we are in [a] free and democratic country here is because of the life of 2 million Afghans who died in the fight against the Soviet Union," Rasul said. "So in one way or another, we have contributed to the liberation of all those countries that are now members of NATO."
The NATO summit in Riga will consider the arguments, but is not expected to take any immediate decisions on the future of the alliance's involvement in Afghanistan.
OPIUM FARMING ON THE RISE Despite a nationwide program by the Afghan government to eradicate opium-poppy fields and offer farmers alternative crops, international experts say that the 2006 opium crop will be as much as 40 percent larger than the previous year's. Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world, and the source of as much as 90 percent of Europe's heroin.(more)