April 1, 2009 / 1:45 PM / 10 years ago

60 years on, NATO in crisis over Afghan war

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The NATO alliance, born from the ashes of World War Two, meets for a 60th anniversary summit on Friday to seek ways to avoid humbling in a far-off war in Afghanistan it never imagined having to fight.

An Albanian man walks next to a NATO banner at Tirana's main square April 1, 2009. Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, is brimming with pride and the prospect of joining the alliance, together with fellow Adriatic state Croatia, at a NATO summit hosted jointly by France and Germany on Friday and Saturday. Government and parliament buildings have been decorated with the flags of NATO members and street concerts are scheduled. REUTERS/Arben Celi

The meeting in the Rhineland border cities of Strasbourg and Kehl — venues straddling the frontier of foes-turned-allies France and Germany — will be packed full of symbolism aimed at celebrating an alliance created to defend Europe’s borders.

NATO will also welcome France’s return to full NATO participation after a Franco-U.S. schism dating to the days of Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, and an improved transatlantic mood brought by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The 26-nation body will usher in two new Eastern European members, Albania and Croatia, evidence of how it prevailed in the Cold War, and look to build ties with post-Soviet Russia.

But the celebrations cannot mask NATO’s doubts about how to pursue its long war on Islamist militancy in Afghanistan, and fears over extremism in nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan.

“Afghanistan is a huge problem and the key issue for NATO,” said Karl-Heinz Kamp, of the NATO Defense College in Rome. “I am not sure every ally has fully understood this.”

Insurgent violence in Afghanistan has spiraled more than seven years after the U.S.-led intervention, despite a NATO-led force of over 60,000 from 42 nations and thousands more mounting counter-terrorism operations under U.S. leadership.

An international conference in The Hague this week stressed global determination not to lose Afghanistan and nations rallied round Obama’s plans to step up the war on militants and boost Afghanistan’s own security forces.

But analysts warn against false optimism on the Obama plan, predicting a planned U.S. troop surge will be insufficient, and that its allies in NATO remain reluctant to contribute the troops, equipment, money and coordination needed to prevail.

“We don’t have a blueprint ... We don’t know how to do it and we have no proper assessment of the situation,” said Kamp. “If you don’t know where you are, how will you know where to go?”

“A MESS”

Tarak Barkawi, of Cambridge University’s Center of International Studies, called NATO’s Afghan mission “a mess.”

“Things don’t portend well for the future at all. People are under the illusion that somehow Afghanistan is a less difficult country to fight in than Iraq and that’s simply not the case.”

“And in Pakistan, you are looking at a failed state with nuclear weapons and all the other military hardware. It’s something no one quite wants to contemplate. It’s a cauldron.”

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says now is the time for allies to deliver. But NATO is keeping the focus on what can be realistically expected.

Immediately, it wants allies to send four more battalions — or up to 4,000 troops — to protect August elections, to make up a longstanding shortfall in training teams for the Afghan army and commitment to a revamped police training mission under NATO command.

“We need to make sure that this summit is about more than handshakes and celebrations — we need output and deliverables,” said its spokesman James Appathurai.

Chatham House analyst Robert Jackson said failure of NATO allies to follow the U.S. lead in committing significantly more would mean the alliance would ultimately face a stark choice.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“Either we should leave and let the Taliban take over, or NATO, led by the U.S., needs to make a mammoth commitment of troops and aid. We are frittering away Afghanistan,” he said.

Uncertainty about how to proceed has even placed in doubt efforts to name a successor to de Hoop Scheffer at the summit.

Some allies fear front-runner Anders Fogh Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark, could further inflame tensions with Muslims given his failure to a apologize in a row over publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Secular but mostly Muslim Turkey has made clear it has concerns with Rasmussen.

Editing by Myra MacDonald

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