Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Fracturing Alliance

While the Taliban is undoubtedly experiencing a resurgence in Afghanistan and now operates virtually unmolested in the tribal areas of Pakistan, NATO forces appear to be splintering amid US criticisms of the fortitude and effectiveness of non-US forces. These criticisms have sprung from American frustrations over the growing violence in Afghanistan and a reluctance by NATO allies to deploy more forces or take on a greater combat role. To counter an expected offensive by the Taliban this Spring, the Administration recently chose to deploy an additional 3,200 Marines to southern Afghanistan. A move they hope will reassure allies who have questioned our commitment, and increase the likelihood those allies will follow suit.

The Post reports: The U.S. plan to send an additional 3,200 Marines to troubled southern Afghanistan this spring reflects the Pentagon's belief that if it can't bully its recalcitrant NATO allies into sending more troops to the Afghan front, perhaps it can shame them into doing so.

According to the Pentagon Spokesperson, Geoff Morrell: "It is our hope that our allies in NATO and other partners . . . in Afghanistan will see what more they can do to add forces to bring down the shortfall that will exist even after we deploy these additional Marines.” This would include, "at the very least," sending forces to replace the Marines when they leave at the end of this year.”

But this is where American diplomacy gets interesting and a bit wayward… In one breath, US officials castigate our allies for a lack of commitment in Afghanistan. In the next, they publicly criticize the abilities and performance of allies with troops on the ground who are fighting and suffering significant casualties.

The Post reports: What's more, Mr. Gates and other senior Pentagon officials seem to have concluded that the three NATO countries that have been willing to operate in the south -- Britain, Canada and the Netherlands -- have been relatively ineffective. Mr. Gates told the Los Angeles Times this week that "most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency"; the Pentagon believes they are too averse to casualties, too reluctant to patrol and too dependent on artillery and airstrikes. The Post's Karen DeYoung reported that U.S. commanders criticize British troops for failing to retain control over areas taken from the Taliban and for advancing a "colonial" strategy of backing local militias rather than working with the national Afghan army.

European diplomats and NATO's defenders furiously respond that the American complaints are unfounded. Almost all of the alliance's members have increased their commitment to Afghanistan in the past year, they point out, helping to raise the troop level under NATO command from 33,000 to 41,000. The troubles in the south, they say, are the result of NATO forces penetrating an area that U.S. commanders had neglected, allowing the Taliban to flourish. British officials say their strategy in Helmand province is comparable to the successful U.S. alliances with Sunni militias in Iraq.

This new American diplomatic approach is viewed with increasing disdain by a world community (including many high-ranking US military officials) that believes the US invasion of Iraq was the turning point in the war in Afghanistan – the ultimate contributor to the rising violence and the growing influence of the Taliban. With bin Laden on the ropes, Al-Qaeda in shambles, and the Taliban all but out of business, US military might, attention, and resources were siphoned away from Afghanistan at a time when they were most needed. The ensuing events shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.

“After more than six years of coalition warfare in Afghanistan, NATO is a bundle of frayed nerves and tension over nearly every aspect of the conflict, including troop levels and missions, reconstruction, anti-narcotics efforts, and even counterinsurgency strategy. Stress has grown along with casualties, domestic pressures and a sense that the war is not improving.”

Despite the daunting challenges, our troops continue to perform admirably in Afghanistan. For once, it would be nice if our civilian leadership and diplomatic efforts were more worthy of their sacrifice.

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