- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008


Germany says “no” and “no” again to greater troop commitments for Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates keeps trying to wring more troop support for Afghanistan from allies who seem content to let nations like the United States, Canada and the Netherlands do the most dangerous work when it comes to preventing Osama bin Laden’s allies from retaking power in Kabul.

Even kindly Canada has called for NATO partners — for this, read continental NATO partners — to shoulder more of the burden in support of its 2,500 troops. Otherwise, the House of Commons may not extend the Canadian forces mission in Afghanistan. Right now, the NATO alliance faces a moment of serious crisis in which some Western “leaders” are behaving irresponsibly when it comes to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the failure of NATO countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain to contribute sufficiently to the war effort is giving the Taliban and al Qaeda an opportunity to make a comeback. “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,” the blunt-spoken Mr. Gates told a NATO audience last week in Vilnius, Lithuania. “I will once again become a nag on the issue.”

Speaking yesterday at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy in Germany, Mr. Gates strongly indicated that the “nagging” had only just begun. He made the point that some European countries were trying to limit their participation to less dangerous training and peacekeeping activities.

“Some allies ought not to have to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying,” Mr. Gates observed.

The State Department is making the point that all NATO allies need to be pulling their weight. In an interview with a German newspaper published Friday, outgoing Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns pointed to Germany, Italy, Spain and France as countries that needed to either provide more troops or loosen restrictions on their ability to fight.

In an interview with London’s Sunday Telegraph published yesterday, likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain said he plans to launch a diplomatic offensive to push France and Germany to do more to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “I’ll go over there and sit down with them,” Mr. McCain said, in order to discuss “NATO’s failure to do the heavy lifting in Afghanistan.” Mr. McCain also criticized “operational restrictions on some of the troops that are there.”

The senator was referring to the perverse system of “national caveats” that numerous NATO countries place on what operations their forces can undertake in Afghanistan — restrictions that hamper combat effectiveness and enhance the jihadists’ ability to survive alliance operations against them. “Caveats pose difficult problems for force commanders, who seek maximum flexibility in utilizing troops under their command,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) noted in a study of NATO’s role in Afghanistan published last month. For example, according to CRS: “The Italian and Spanish governments said that their force commanders in the field could make the decision to send forces in an urgent situation. It remains unclear whether and when these commanders would have to request permission from their capitals to do so, a complicating factor that could delay a decision.” Moreover, CRS said, some NATO countries are upset with the fact that Germany “has a large contingent of 2,700 troops in a relatively quiet area of northern Afghanistan” and that German troops “do not leave their bases at night.”

The vital alliance is, in fact, very much “two-tiered.” The brunt of the difficult mission in Afghanistan has been born disproportionately by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the tiny Netherlands. But the relatively pro-American heads of state in France and Germany have been reluctant to address this problem.

The bottom line of the Afghan mission: It matters, or should matter, to all NATO partners sufficiently for all of them to make real contributions like contributing more troops and getting rid of harmful caveats the hamper the fight against al Qaeda and its associates. To hear continental leaders, though, the question is, “Why should Afghanistan be a matter of vital import for our foreign policy?” We might rephrase the question: “Why send troops when American will do it for us?” If Afghanistan devolves into a menace reminiscent of the Taliban era, no European leader would then ask whether the problem was sufficiently “vital.”

This mission is simply too important to democracy and trans-Atlantic security. The free ride should end.

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