U.S., British and Canadian forces are locked in a deadly struggle with
the Taliban in Afghanistan. But while the three countries are left to
the heavy soldiering, their NATO allies elsewhere in Afghanistan have
seen little, if any, action. PAUL KORING reports on the questions being
asked where the boots hit the dirt.
By PAUL KORING
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- Troops from most major European nations are kept far from the fighting in Afghanistan, crippling NATO's effort to defeat the Taliban and secure the embattled south, according to NATO officers and independent analysts.
That leaves U.S., British and Canadian soldiers doing most of the fighting and dying in the battle with the fierce Taliban insurgency, a review of casualties shows.
Germany, France, Italy, and Spain -- all major military powers with significant troop contributions -- have stayed far from the Taliban fighters, deploying thousands of combat-capable troops, but keeping them hunkered down in the mostly peaceful northern and western parts of the country.
The starkest indicator of the imbalance is the body count, with three countries -- the United States, Canada and Britain -- accounting for 90 per cent of NATO's combat casualties.
Americans killed in action account for half of the total, followed by Canada with 25 per cent and Britain with 15 per cent.
But the unwillingness of many European nations to allow their troops to be sent into combat is only part of the problem.
Most of the 37 "troop-contributing" nations to the International Security and Assistance Force have sent too few soldiers to make any meaningful military impact.
Some are just token contributions. Austria has five soldiers, fewer than the number of Austrian flags at ISAF headquarters. Canada has more troops in Afghanistan than the combined total from 23 nations. Many of those contributions, ranging from a few dozen soldiers to a couple of hundred, are too small to be effective in combat even if they were deployed in the south.
The shortfall and the unwillingness of most NATO nations to allow their soldiers into combat, is expected to dominate next month's alliance summit in Riga.
NATO's Dutch Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has taken aim at the big countries whose troops are kept from combat by political restrictions.
"We need to better configure our forces in Afghanistan," he wrote in a German newspaper last week. "That also means removing the limitations individual nations have placed on their troops."
Pleas from top NATO commanders for more troops or the loosening of tight leashes that keeps most European soldiers from the fighting have fallen largely on deaf ears.
"Only a handful of NATO members are prepared to go to the south and east and to go robustly -- mainly the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, Australia and Denmark," the International Crisis Group concludes in a blunt report published this month.
"Hard questions need to be asked of those such as Germany, Spain, France, Turkey and Italy who are not, and who sometimes appear to put force protection, not mission needs, at the fore."
A senior Canadian officer is more blunt. "How many battalions does it take to protect Kabul airport?" said Colonel Fred Lewis, the deputy contingent commander.
It's not just Kabul. In relatively peaceful northeastern Afghanistan, Germany has 2,700 troops, the third largest contingent in Afghanistan. Yet not a single German soldier has been in a firefight this year and there have been no German combat casualties.
Italy has 1,800 troops -- a contingent almost as big as Canada's -- in Herat in the northwest, a region more restive than the Germans.
In 2003, the Canadian government considered -- and eventually rejected -- deploying troops to Herat. Instead, the government opted for the far more dangerous Kandahar province, heartland of the Taliban.
Spain, another big, continental military power, has sent its soldiers to Badghis, adjacent to Herat, and also far from the insurgency.
French troops are mostly in Kabul, although it has about 200 special forces fighting in the south.
Not only are many European troops in relatively safe zones, their presence in Afghanistan is predicated on deals with NATO that they not be sent into combat.
"Indeed, troop presence in Afghanistan often appears to be about demonstrating an alliance with the U.S. rather than meeting the country's needs," the Crisis Group report says.
Of the roughly 31,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the United States provides more than 11,000. Another 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan remain under direct U.S. command.
Only the United States, Britain and the Netherlands have deployed a full array of combat capability, with warplanes and helicopter gunships to back up ground troops.
Although NATO won't reveal those secret national caveats, they effectively tie the hands of top commanders.
Some prevent troops from being sent south to where the fighting takes place. Others are so specific that they preclude certain national contingents from venturing beyond their heavily fortified bases after dark, according to NATO officers who spoke on condition that they not be named.
Canadian Brigadier-General David Fraser, who until earlier this month commanded all U.S., Canadian, British and Dutch troops in NATO's southern region, said he wanted more troops moved south. "The fewer national caveats, the more flexibility we would have to deal with the Taliban," he said.
ISAF's overall commander, British Lieutenant-General David Richards, has said he needs an additional rapid-reaction force of 2,000 soldiers in southern Afghanistan. No country stepped forward. Poland offered about 900 troops, but they won't arrive until spring.
Coalition of the unwilling?
There are 37 countries contributing troops to NATO's mission to stabilize Afghanistan, but most of the fighting falls to a handful of nations, while the others have too few troops to take part in battles or are keeping their soldiers out of the most dangerous areas.
New Zealand 100
SOURCE: ISAF, ICASUALTIES.ORG
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Source: The Globe and Mail, print edition, Friday 17 November 2006.