Media General News Service September 21, 2006
Not enough crusaders
By John Hall
WASHINGTON -- Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda No. 2 man, suddenly is Mr. Glib. He sneered at U.S. forces for turning over duties in Afghanistan to "second rate crusaders" from NATO.
That's hardly what happened. There are still 21,000 U.S. troops fighting under their own command in Afghanistan. Another 20,000 from NATO have moved in. Only a fraction of them - a British-Canadian-U.S.-Dutch force - is now seeing combat and taking heavy casualties against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
The problem isn't that they're second rate. It's that there aren't enough of them.
NATO's top commander, Gen. James L. Jones, has appealed for help from the 26 member nations of NATO, and has been greeted so far with silence and thousand-mile stares. So far, except for Poland, sort of, no one has answered Jones' call for 2,500 more combat troops in southern Afghanistan.
Closed-door meetings beginning today in New York and continuing through the end of the month in Slovenia are expected to settle the issue one way or the other. But it doesn't look very promising. NATO is a fading alliance. Nothing will ever replace the menace of Russian tanks and nuclear warheads as a reason for the Atlantic alliance.
The NATO discussions are intimately tied with the current negotiations in Washington on the treatment of terrorist suspects seized and held for harsh questioning. Senate critics have warned that the Bush administration's insistence on relaxed definitions of torture is causing the United States to lose valuable comrades in arms in the struggle against terrorism.
There have been reports that some NATO partners in Afghanistan, including the Dutch, have refused to fight alongside U.S. troops or under U.S. command as a result of the administration's policy on treatment of prisoners of war and the Abu Ghraib scandal.
This quarrel on troop contributions in Afghanistan is serious for the simple reason that this is the first out-of-area combat operation in that organization's history, and the allies can't afford to botch it if NATO is to be taken seriously.
Even if it can be patched up, it will take four or five more years before Afghanistan's freely elected government is ready to stand on its own, at least in the estimation of the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
Why is NATO, the mightiest alliance in the history of mankind, so ineffective and taking so long in Afghanistan?
The big reason may be that - with American troops out doing their own thing - NATO has reverted to a hodgepodge, with not much at its core.
Germany, for instance, has 2,300 troops in Afghanistan. But because of its history, it refuses to let them go on patrol in dangerous areas. The Dutch, who have elections coming up, reportedly asked to keep their forces from incurring any casualties, a request that commanders from other nations immediately turned down as unreasonable. There are reports now that Dutch troops will be pulling out altogether within the year, with no one in sight to replace them.
The end of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government in Britain within the next year could also call the 5,000-troop British commitment in question.
While Poland has a tentative commitment to Afghanistan, it will be withdrawing about 900 troops from Iraq at the end of this year, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
In Afghanistan, the 1,000 French, 600 Spanish, 1,600 Italians and others on the European chessboard managed to keep away from the heaviest trouble areas. Those who have rung the alarm bell over radical Islamic terrorism were not leaping to answer the call for help to defeat the Taliban.
One excuse is competing demands for international forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Afghanistan, added to those, is too much of a drain on resources. Yet even the most reluctant Europeans acknowledge that Afghanistan is the most important strategic region of them all.
Losing Afghanistan to the Taliban would abandon valuable training and military real estate once again to al-Qaeda and the world's terrorist movement.
Jones suggested that the fighting against the Taliban could be cleaned up quickly if other member countries would come through with slightly more combat force and firepower. While giving no timetable, he said more troops would bring a decisive end to this phase of the struggle. But even that didn't even include the hunt for Osama bin Laden and second banana Mr. Zawahiri.
© Copyright 2006, Media General News Service