The struggle to defeat the rising Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan is straining the NATO alliance as the Bush administration ramps up its effort to persuade Europeans to jump into the fight more deeply than ever before.
The question of getting more battle-ready troops and helicopters into the principal conflict zones in southern Afghanistan is, by many accounts, a critical factor in Afghanistan's future: It will help determine whether the insurgents can be beaten back sufficiently to give a fragile Afghan government and security apparatus time to build themselves into an effective long-term counterforce to the Muslim extremists.
The issue arrived front and center this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed directly to Europeans at a security conference in Munich: "I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security" emanating from the al Qaeda-linked rebels in Afghanistan, he said. Gates called European public support for the United Nations-mandated mission weak, adding, "Many Europeans question the relevance of our actions and doubt whether the mission is worth the lives of their sons and daughters."
The stakes relate not only to Afghanistan and to the terror threat to Europe, Gates maintained, but to the trans-Atlantic alliance itself. He warned of NATO becoming a "two tiered alliance," where some countries' forces cleave to less dangerous regions—doing training and peacekeeping—"thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and dying."
Some European officials, most publicly in Germany, have objected to what they see as Gates's hints that their forces are dodging most of the risks and putting unacceptable political pressure on governments like Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands that are more directly engaged in combat operations. Germany's troops operate in the less violent north, a reflection of restrictions placed on them by a parliament with many casualty-averse skeptics on the U.S.-led mission.
Bush administration officials have suggested that, in addition to Germany, such major European countries as France, Italy, and Spain ought to provide more troops or at least ease restrictions on their deployments.
Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that he had been "irritated" by Gates's attitude in a recent letter requesting that Berlin and other allied governments do more. Still, Germany, with the third-largest number of foreign troops in Afghanistan, recently announced that it would add 200 "quick-reaction" troops there this year.
NATO leads what's called the International Security Assistance Force, with 43,000 troops in Afghanistan. Some 14,000 of those are American, and another 13,000 U.S. troops are under a separate U.S. command. The administration is also sending another 3,200 marines—most to the conflict zones in the south—on a temporary deployment.
The growing tension within NATO follows an old tradition of intra-alliance spats, which have included rough debates over deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles during the Cold War, expanding the alliance eastward and southward, and—always—burden-sharing among countries that assess threats differently.
But it comes at a particularly vulnerable moment. A report by the Washington-based Atlantic Council last month warned that NATO forces in Afghanistan are not winning but rather reaching a "strategic stalemate" with Taliban insurgents. That report, as well as others, also say the central government in Kabul has fallen short in reforms and reconstruction.
Some European officials also believe that the Bush administration is wanting for an effective response to the growing Taliban presence in next-door Pakistan, raising the prospect of a deepening insurgency in Afghanistan or even drawing the Europeans into a wider war.
The debate over insufficient troops in Afghanistan was sparked, in part, by political pressures in Canada, whose troops have been involved in some of the heaviest fighting and suffered 66 deaths. Canada's conservative government says it will remove its 2,500 troops next year if other NATO contingents don't send at least 1,000 troops as reinforcements to Kandahar province in the south. The Canadian pullout could, some worry, touch off a chain reaction of withdrawals.