Cracks appear in allied coalition in Afghanistan
By Judy Dempsey | September 13, 2007
BERLIN: The coalition established to stabilize Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban by U.S. forces in 2001 is weakening as countries fighting in the volatile south criticize the lack of military support from other NATO allies, defense officials said Thursday.
Britain, Canada and the Netherlands face crucial decisions on whether to renew their commitments in the increasingly violent region where the Dutch contingent now commands alliance forces fighting a growing resurgence by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
The intensifying debate in Europe comes as disarray in Japan's Liberal Democratic Party following the resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to interrupt and perhaps end the Japanese naval force's six-year participation in Afghanistan. Tokyo must obtain parliamentary approval to extend the mission beyond Nov. 1. (Page 8)
"The Dutch government is facing a very difficult decision whether to recommend extending the mandate for the troops or end it as planned," said Sico van der Meer, a security expert at the Netherlands Institute for International Relations. "There are now too few countries willing to help in the south. Germany says it is willing, but not in that dangerous area." The Dutch are committed to keeping 2,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2008.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, asked Germany on Thursday to redeploy some of its 3,200 troops from northern Afghanistan to the south. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats rejected the request, saying German troops were already carrying out important work.
The German troops are based in the relatively peaceful province of Kunduz and are under tight restrictions on their mission. Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung suggested last week that German soldiers help train the Afghan Army in the south, provoking a bitter debate, with some coalition factions opposing deployment in the south and some opposition parties calling for withdrawal of all German troops.
The Dutch government postponed a parliamentary debate this autumn on its contribution because the deployment has become so politically sensitive. "This is becoming a very complicated issue," van der Meer said. "The Dutch soldiers were sent initially to Afghanistan to support a policy of reconstruction and stabilization. But they have ended up in a high-combat mission, which in fact was not NATO's original mandate. NATO is supposed to be a stabilization force."
The Dutch government and NATO are also concerned that even if the Dutch decided to stay in the south, but with reduced numbers, the alliance would be hard-pressed to find another country willing to take over the command. General Ray Henault, the Canadian chairman of NATO's military committee, is looking for another NATO country to replace the Dutch as the lead unit.
During a visit to Australia this week, Henault asked Defense Minister Brendan Nelson if his government, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror, would take on the task. Nelson declined.
"At the moment, it's been clearly expressed to me that Australia would prefer to have a lead nation to work with, especially a NATO nation so it can continue operating in Afghanistan," Henault said. Australia has 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than any other non-NATO nation.
Canada's conservative-led minority government must decide in the coming weeks whether to retain the Afghan mission as part of the government's program. Its 2,500 troops are supposed to stay there until 2009.
Paul Dubois, the Canadian ambassador to Germany, said recently that the force of 30,000 NATO troops - the bulk of which are not in action in the south - and 10,000 U.S. soldiers was too little. "Naturally, we would welcome it if Germany and other countries sent more soldiers."
Britain, while reducing its contingent in Iraq, has almost doubled its force in Afghanistan from 3,300 to 5,800. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has publicly supported a much stronger British presence in the country - but on condition of greater support from NATO. Such assistance is unlikely, according to security analysts.
"There was always a shortage of NATO troops and military equipment," said Clara O'Donnell, a defense expert at the Center for European Reform in London. "Now, with the debate over the future of the Dutch and Canadian participation and with all the restrictions imposed on troops from other countries, the likelihood is that there will be less troops."
The South Korean government announced last month that it would be withdrawing its 200 troops serving with the U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 23 South Korean volunteers had been taken hostage by the Taliban. And in Italy, Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government barely survived a confidence vote when the opposition insisted that it withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan. But Prodi survived the vote and the troops are still there.
The other big European countries, including Italy and Spain, are unwilling to send their troops south, saying that their deployment mandates did not allow it. De Hoop Scheffer said he did not think that "things are going to change anytime soon. "
"But if Afghanistan is NATO's most important mission, countries should deliver what they promise," he said.