The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has 41,000 troops in Afghanistan, but despite making progress has been unable to stamp out a growing Taliban insurgency in the south and east of the country. The unrest across the border in Pakistan -- home to most of the Taliban leadership -- is also a growing worry for ISAF commanders. The U.S. military, meanwhile, is struggling to provide more troops and resources due to the weight of its commitments in Iraq.
NATO officials have tried to put a brave face on the situation. Speaking to journalists in Brussels on October 22, John Colston, NATO's assistant secretary-general for defense policy and planning, admitted that "the pressures on troop levels are exceptionally high."
Maintaining Even Current Troop Levels Uncertain
But he insisted the alliance's ability to carry out its mission in Afghanistan is not in doubt. "It's clear that [ISAF's commander in chief] has the capacities today which enable him to carry out his mission and enable him to carry out that mission successfully," Colston said. "But ministers will want to continue to ensure that ISAF capability is as effective as possible."
Top ISAF commanders have said in recent months that although they can win ground from the insurgents, they lack the troops necessary to hold it. In the summer, ISAF's commanders asked NATO to find two extra battalions for immediate deployment in the south. Colston ruled out the prospect of any new troop contributions being made at the meeting beginning today in the Dutch seaside resort of Noordwijk.
However, NATO ministers will have to contend with more than the current shortfalls in troop levels. The Netherlands, the host of the meeting, may be on the brink of a partial or complete pullout from Afghanistan -- where it currently plays a key role in the southern province of Oruzgan. Canada, the mainstay of ISAF's presence in Kandahar Province, is similarly facing intense domestic pressure to reconsider its presence in Afghanistan. NATO has been forced to canvas other non-NATO members to fill the gap in anticipation of a partial Dutch withdrawal from Oruzgan Province.
In the long run, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are expected to fill the gap, but ISAF commanders predict it will take another three to four years before they can provide significant relief to Western troops. Again, officials in Brussels admit that ISAF is suffering from a shortage of trainers for Afghan troops. It currently fields about 30 Operational and Mentoring Liaison teams of between 15-30 men each, but would need at least 46 at this stage. NATO members are being lobbied hard to supply more teams.
Officials also say that in the absence of contributions, NATO has been forced to contract about 20 helicopters from private companies for use in southern Afghanistan. It says such an arrangement is unprecedented and will not be repeated.
In For The Long Haul
Colston said the NATO ministers will also discuss the future of NATO's role in Afghanistan with representatives from the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Bank -- organizations that NATO leaders have said should do more to help rebuild Afghanistan.
However, there is growing recognition within the alliance that it will have to remain in Afghanistan for a long time. Officials say the United States is pressing other allies to accept a commitment to stay for as long as a generation. The suggestion is not popular, but could be on the agenda of NATO's spring summit in Bucharest next year.
Meanwhile, Colston hinted, NATO realizes that it needs to do more to generate support for its mission -- both within the alliance and Afghanistan itself. "And [the ministers will] want to reflect on ensuring our success -- or otherwise -- in conveying the right messages to national publics and parliaments, and to the people of Afghanistan," he said.
This may involve contemplating peace overtures to moderate members of the Taliban, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has done. So far, the United States and Canada are said to reject such an approach, but there are indications that pressure is mounting within the alliance to look beyond military means to resolve the conflict.