Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the top U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan yesterday issued a blunt assessment of the alliance’s shortcomings in that country, arguing that the unwillingness of some member states to risk combat casualties is threatening NATO’s future and undermining the prosecution of the Afghan war.
“I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security, and others who are not,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps get even worse.”
American and other NATO officials are sparring over force levels, missions and strategy as violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest levels since the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Although coalition forces have defeated the Taliban in many tactical engagements, analysts say NATO remains in a “strategic stalemate” because of lagging reconstruction and governance efforts. The disputes have pitted Washington against its European partners in a manner rarely seen since the end of the Cold War, casting doubts on the credibility and purpose of the alliance.
Gates, who departs today for a two-day meeting with NATO defense ministers in Lithuania, said he will urge European countries to loosen the “caveats” they place on their troops — rules limiting where they can be deployed or whether they can engage in battle — and to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.
Gen. Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, described in a wide-ranging interview how he is hamstrung by the combat restraints on some NATO troops, insufficient forces and intelligence capabilities, and a host of other political and military obstacles that undercut effective operations.
“Caveats deny me the ability to plan and prosecute,” McNeill said. “I can’t amass them to where I might have a decisive point. . . . Obviously I can’t move as quickly as I want to,” McNeill said.
McNeill said such constraints have led to unofficial proposals that U.S. forces take charge of the mission in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and where British, Canadian and Dutch troops now serve — an idea that he said merits consideration.
“I think it should enter into the dialogue” with NATO, McNeill said. The roughly 27,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are concentrated near the eastern border with Pakistan and make up the bulk of the approximately 55,000 foreign troops in the country. McNeill attributed much of the increased violence to the stepped-up military operations.
NATO forces took charge of the Afghan mission in 2006, and the following year saw the worst violence in the country since the war began, with unprecedented military and civilian casualties and a nearly 30 percent rise in attacks, including 60 percent in the southern province of Helmand, according to U.S. military data. As he prepared to take command of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2006, McNeill recalled, then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Marine Gen. James Jones gave him simple instructions: “Don’t fracture the alliance.”
McNeill now finds himself struggling to hold that alliance together. “It doesn’t look as though it’s fractured,” he said on a visit from Kabul, noting that over the past year foreign troops in Afghanistan have expanded by more than 8,000, with reinforcements expected soon from the United States and possibly Britain and Germany. But “there is a hell of a lot of debate back in various countries about what their role should be,” he acknowledged.
The growing divide over NATO roles led to a tense encounter in Kabul last year between McNeill and a senior German official. McNeill, who had learned that only about 6,000 of Germany’s 250,000-strong military force is deployed abroad, asked if Germany could devote one alpine battalion of about 500 troops to Afghanistan.
“You must understand the political context in our country,” the official responded, wagging a finger. “General, that will not happen.
In another sign of allies’ reservations, the Canadian government is debating whether to shift its mission to training and mentoring, a move McNeill opposes. “My first choice is to have them stay in the fight,” he said. In an earlier press conference, McNeill described troop levels in Afghanistan as “a minimalist force.”
Canada’s government announced last week that it would continue its combat mission past January 2009 only if another NATO partner deploys an additional 1,000 combat troops to the southern province of Kandahar, where Canada’s 2,500 troops are based.
Gates said yesterday that his decision to send 3,200 Marines into Afghanistan this spring stems in part from the shortfalls by NATO partners. Although he praised the Canadians, British, Australians, Dutch and Danes for “doing their part,” Gates told the committee that he has written all NATO defense ministers asking them to “dig deeper” to solve the problems in Afghanistan.
Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it will be hard for the United States to squeeze more troops out of NATO allies. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for governments to explain this is no longer a peacekeeping operation, this is counterinsurgency and combat, and that’s far more dangerous,” Korski said.
McNeill said he has also faced pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to curtail operations in some provinces, particularly following civilian casualties. McNeill said he and Karzai have “intensive dialogues about not only where and why we run particular operations but how we intend to run them.”
Karzai’s government has also opposed U.S. proposals for more aggressive eradication of opium crops. Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium, and McNeill estimated the crop finances up to 40 percent of Taliban operations. McNeill said he was pushing the NATO mandate as far as possible to allow his forces to target the “nexus” between opium and insurgents.
Regional interference, including weapons from Iran and fighters from Pakistan, are another challenge for McNeill. But he noted unusual progress made during a three-hour New Year’s Eve meeting with the new head of Pakistan’s Army, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, and the head of the Afghan military, who agreed to share intelligence on insurgent activity and conduct officer exchanges.
Also yesterday, when pressed by senators, Gates estimated that the Pentagon will need at least $170 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during fiscal 2009. The president’s budget announcement Monday included a separate $70 billion war-funding request for the first quarter of 2009 but did not estimate costs that would stretch into the next president’s administration.