LONDON NATO members are wavering in their political commitment to Afghanistan, one of the alliance's top commanders said on Monday, describing the nearly seven-year-old campaign against the Taliban as disjointed.
Pointing to more than 70 "caveats" that gave individual countries a veto over certain operations, and the fact that troop commitments remained unfulfilled, General John Craddock said he was fearful the operation was being short-changed.
"We are demonstrating a political will that is in my judgment sometimes wavering," Craddock, a U.S. general and NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said in a speech to policymakers and defense analysts in London.
"It's this wavering political will that impedes operational progress and brings into question the relevance of the alliance here in the 21st century," he said.
NATO troops serve in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate. That mandate initially limited their operations to Kabul but in 2003 was expanded to give NATO a wider role to support the Afghan government throughout the country.
As insecurity has increased in Afghanistan, NATO troops have steadily been drawn into more deadly operations, a factor that has dissuaded some countries from deeper involvement.
Craddock told Britain's Sky News television more British troops would be needed in Afghanistan's Helmand province but the precise number had yet to be decided.
"That will be up to the commander on the ground but the situation in Helmand province I think is critical," he said. "That's the key area for the production of poppy, it is a key area for the insurgency."
Insecurity has led farmers to switch from producing food to opium, a crop that also funds the Taliban insurgency. Helmand produced about half the world's opium last year.
SECURITY AT STALEMATE
Craddock told Sky Afghan reconstruction and development was moving ahead slowly and needed to be more coherent.
"I do not think we are losing, we are not winning fast enough," Sky's website quoted him as saying. "Security is at a stalemate. Governance is stuck top dead center."
In his earlier speech, Craddock defended the view expressed by Britain's outgoing commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, that the Taliban could not be defeated and insurgents needed to be drawn into dialogue.
"His comments are generally in line with what our military and political leaders have been saying all along... The conflict in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone," said Craddock, who serves as NATO's operational commander.
"We in the international community must come together as part of a truly comprehensive approach (in Afghanistan). The current effort remains disjointed in time and space."
The 26-member NATO alliance has about 50,000 troops in Afghanistan but commanders say they need at least 12,000 more. Most NATO countries are reluctant to commit.
Afghanistan is widely seen as more precarious than Iraq, with the Taliban becoming more sophisticated in its ability to carry out ambushes and bombings. Yet there are half as many foreign troops operating in Afghanistan as there are in Iraq, a country that is smaller than Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by Jon Boyle; editing by Andrew Dobbie)