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Afghan Mission Crucial for NATO's Survival

By André de Nesnera
14 November 2007

Forces from the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, are encountering stiff resistance from Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan. In this report from Washington, VOA senior correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what is at stake for NATO.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003, leading a 41,000-troop U.N.-mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force." It is the military alliance's first mission ever outside the Euro-Atlantic region.

Experts say NATO has three missions in Afghanistan. The first is to assist the government of president Hamid Karzai in its efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. The second is to train the Afghan army and police. And the third mission is to hunt down and eliminate insurgents in southern Afghanistan.

Former U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, Robert Hunter, says NATO is having a difficult time implementing the various goals.

"I cannot say they are winning the war because a lot of other things that need to be done, both economic development and the efforts of the Karzai government in Kabul, are lagging far behind," he said. "Poppy production has hit an all-time record. Police training is not going very well. The judiciary is not going well. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams that NATO and some other countries are operating in 25 of the 36 provinces really are not big enough and well staffed enough or have enough money to get the job done. So if you look at it in terms of hearts and minds, that is which way will the average Afghan jump, whether for the central government and let us say the modern age or the intimidation of the Taliban, the jury is very definitely out."

The fiercest combat has been centered in southern Afghanistan, the home of the Taliban, ousted from power by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.

Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the situation is not getting better.

"Violence is increasing," he said. "More suicide attacks are occurring. And if you look at the numbers, the trend is somewhat worrisome. In this year 2007, we have already had more U.S. soldiers die than in all of last year. On the civilian front, in 2006, the number was 4,000 killed. In 2007, we are already well above 5,000. And so it is clear that the situation is getting worse, not better.'

Kupchan and others - such as Ambassador Hunter - say NATO's credibility is at stake if it does not defeat the Taliban and help bring stability to Afghanistan.

"You have to remember, NATO's reputation is built in part [on] never having failed. And if the NATO alliance fails, then it is going to be very difficult for people to take NATO as seriously in the future," he said.

A NATO expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, Michael Williams, says the alliance is failing.

"You have the situation where you have increasing collateral damage [civilian], which although very limited, still does a lot of damage when magnified in the global media, both on the ground in Afghanistan but also back at the home countries - the pressure then accumulates and is applied to politicians to pull the troops out. So I think really, when it comes down to it, the whole idea of collective security and solidarity and the ability of the alliance to provide security is going to be called into question if they cannot manage to extract themselves over the longer run from Afghanistan," said Williams.

Analysts say for NATO to succeed, member countries must provide more troops and equipment to fight the Taliban. But experts also agree that NATO alone cannot stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.

They say the international community must also provide the necessary economic and financial help to aid the government of president Hamid Karzai.

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