Coalition of the unwilling

By Richard Norton-Taylor, the Guardian’s security affairs editor (THE GUARDIAN, 07/11/07):

Yesterday’s suicide bomb in northern Afghanistan, the country’s deadliest attack since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, is a huge blow to Nato, as well as President Hamid Karzai’s rickety government. The credibility of Nato, established to deter the mass battalions of the Soviet Union and its satellites at the start of the cold war, is in danger of crumbling in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan.In its first ground combat mission since the US-dominated alliance was set up in 1949, its members have not deployed enough troops and equipment to defeat an enemy driving around in pick-up trucks, armed with rockets and small arms. Motivated as much by western temerity as Islamist ideology, Taliban leaders are now importing al-Qaida-inspired foreign fighters and terrorist tactics, notably suicide bombers, that have killed so many in Iraq.

There are some 50,000 European and North American troops in Afghanistan, most of them American but including 7,700 British backed up mainly by Canadian and Dutch soldiers. France has committed no troops for combat. Nor has Germany, whose soldiers are in the hitherto more stable and peaceful north.

Timo Noetzel, visiting fellow at Chatham House, describes his country’s attitude in the latest issue of the thinktank’s magazine the World Today. “The political debate,” he writes, “focuses on two issues: the potential German involvement in combat, and criticism of the American conduct of operations. The complaint is that actions of the US forces are fuelling the insurgency, with collateral damage and mounting civilian casualties eroding community support.”

Afghanistan, according to Gordon Brown, is the front line in the fight against international terrorism. Des Browne, the defence secretary, describes the fight against the Taliban as a “noble cause”. Yet six years after US bombs drove the Taliban out, all the evidence is that, with support from across the border in Pakistan, it is regrouping and the insurgency is intensifying.

Insurgent and terrorist attacks are 20% higher this year than in the whole of 2006, according to the UN. There were more than 100 suicide attacks in the first eight months of this year compared to 123 last year and just 17 in 2005. More and more of the country is classified as being too risky for UN agencies and NGOs such as Oxfam to operate in.

Deprived of reinforcements on the ground, army commanders call for help from the air. Aerial bombing leads inevitably to more civilian casualties and provokes more hostility. While shiny new helicopters stand idly in the hangars of Europe, Nato soldiers in Afghanistan are having to hire civilian machines from Russia and Ukraine to carry supplies.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies says that “a vicious cycle of drug-trafficking proceeds [are] sustaining the insurgency and ‘shadow governments’ in Kandahar and Helmand provinces”. Corruption and tribal loyalties are sabotaging ambitious plans to build up an Afghan army and police force.

Brigadier John Lorimer, who returned last month after commanding British forces in southern Afghanistan, said his troops had made a “huge difference” there. The question is, for how long? And it is certainly not thanks to Nato.

The following day, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, addressed the Conference of European Armies in Heidelberg. “If an alliance of the world’s greatest democracies cannot summon the will to get the job done in a mission that we agree is morally just and vital to our security,” he warned, “then our citizens may begin to question both the worth of the mission and the utility of the 60-year-old transatlantic security project itself.” They already are.