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Commentary: At its Riga Summit, NATO Grapples with the Problem of Afghanistan

  • November 27th, 2006
  • Posted by 7thmin

lee-duffield-resized.jpgCommentary: At its Riga Summit, NATO grapples with the problem of Afghanistan.

Lee Duffield at NATO Headquarters in Brussels

(This report is archived under EUAustralia, Commentary)

Australia‘s armed commitment in Afghanistan has been cited as a model for new, more global relationships being planned at the summit of the NATO alliance this week, in Latvia.

NATO’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, says the heads of government will be proposing “flexible and pragmatic” terms for so-called “contact countries” – co-operative states outside the alliance’s main area.

He told a media briefing at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, on Friday (24.11.06), that all of the contact group – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – were connected with military or reconstruction work in Afghanistan.

“NATO in not seeking the role of a global policeman … but a number of threats and challenges that we face are global, and NATO needs global partners, who are going to be rather far away, ” he said

“We are talking about the antipodes when we discuss Australia, but Australian forces are fighting side by side with Dutch forces in Oruzgan, in Afghanistan, for the same cause.”

The alliance took over leadership of the international force after committing to the job early in 2005, and by last July conceded it had no more than 85-percent of capacity needed to carry out its task; fighting off intensified military action by Taliban insurgents to protect large-scale civil reconstruction.

Senior officers have been hurrying to persuade the military partners, from 37 countries (NATO and non-NATO), to contribute more troops, helicopters and other material.

That job has fallen mostly to the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, a Canadian General, Ray Henault, who conferred with his group earlier this month, later telling journalists he’d been struggling, but making ground.

One of the General’s main concerns was to persuade countries taking part, before the Summit deadline, to reduce restrictions, called “caveats”, which they had put on the use of their forces.

Even some NATO members, including Germany and Spain, had imposed them.

“Caveats” he dislikes most are constraints on geographical areas where troops can be sent; not such a problem where the Australian forces are concerned.

The main Australian group, nearly four hundred strong, is made up of engineers and a protection force, attached to the Dutch military and civil operation, in the Oruzgan province, part of the Southern area where most serious fighting has been going on.

Another 110 Australians are operating Chinook helicopters; a detachment of special forces which went to Afghanistan earlier has been withdrawn.

“We very much value, welcome and appreciate the contribution of contact countries like Australia,” General Henault said.

He said NATO forces had run into resistance as they moved further out from Kabul, but they’d been overcoming it.

“NATO although it may not have totally anticipated the level of violence that we were facing and have now overcome, in the Southern region, nevertheless was able to rise to the challenge, ” he said.

The pressure of battle may turn the summit of NATO leaders into a council of war, much more than a diplomatic event.

Afghanistan is close to the top of the agenda, along with other strictly military items such as dealing with explosives used by terrorists, and better protection for helicopters and troops against missiles.

However the future relationship between NATO and its “contact” partners is one topic where the heads of government may get into stiff disagreement this week.

Mr de Hoop Scheffer insists there will be no “deep structural” new commitment; countries like Australia will be able to share a “tool box” for dealing with problems, like control of chemical and biological weapons, civil emergencies or opposing terrorism.

He had explained to the Chinese Ambassador to NATO that links to Japan and other powers in the Pacific area would be limited.

Co-operation with the “contact” countries is seen by some, including the American President, George Bush, as a good model for giving the alliance a more global reach.

Other partners, some in the French government, have set out reservations.

They may have agreed to expansion beyond the Cold War barriers of an alliance set to do battle with the Soviet Union, but have not sanctioned more change, leading towards “globalisation” of activity.

Australia has been sitting out this debate.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, visiting Brussels in September, suggested that an extension of activity, on present lines, would be “logical”, but Australia was satisfied with its role as an outside partner.

There is plenty of other scope for diplomatic tension, because of the choice of Riga, capital of Latvia as the location for this NATO summit.

It is the first major event for the alliance in former Soviet territory – Latvia belonged to the old enemy.

While NATO has been conducting cordial relations with Russia for the last ten years, that new reality may yet strike a raw nerve with the nationalistic Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his government.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed in 1949 by Western European countries, Canada and the United States, as a counter to Soviet military power. It expanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking in former Soviet republics or former allies, to become a more generalised security organisation, with 26 member countries. The summit of heads of government at Riga, capital of Latvia, on 28 and 29th November, will be the first such gathering since the organisation increased to its present size.

(This report is archived under EUAustralia, Commentary)