STRASBOURG, France – NATO leaders gathered here Friday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of an alliance that deterred the Soviet Union, opened the door to emerging democracies, battled ethnic cleansing and now welcomes the return of France as a full member. But they also must face the harsh reality that NATO’s first military mission outside Europe is failing in a way that risks fracturing the alliance.
As President Obama takes ownership of the fight against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, aides say he is determined to turn around the war in Afghanistan with a regional approach, recognizing that the stability of neighboring Pakistan, where Al Qaeda hides, is increasingly at risk. Mr. Obama, who left London for Strasbourg Friday after attending the Group of 20 summit meeting, is trying to fashion an efficient counterinsurgency strategy, as in Iraq, with a comprehensive surge of military and civilian reinforcements.
But his increasing American troops in Afghanistan to some 68,000 by the end of the year, from 38,000 today, is also likely to significantly Americanize an operation that in recent years had been divided equally between American troops and allied forces. By year’s end, American troops will outnumber allied forces by at least two to one.
His NATO allies are giving the president considerable vocal support for the newly integrated strategy. But they are giving him very few new troops on the ground, underlining the fundamental strains in the alliance.
The allies will offer more funds but no more than several thousand new personnel members, according to alliance military planners. Many of those will not be soldiers, but police trainers to meet a central pillar of the president’s new Afghan strategy, which focuses on an expansion of Afghan security forces. But even for the small numbers of European combat reinforcements, check the fine print: Nearly all will be sent to provide security for Afghanistan’s elections this summer, and will not be permanently deployed.
The war in Afghanistan has not drawn the enormous public protests in Europe that preceded the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. However, there were clashes in Strasbourg on Thursday between police firing tear gas and nearly 1,000 protesters who tried to enter the city center. The protesters, some of them masked, set garbage cans on fire and smashed a dozen bus stop shelters. On Friday, the French police said that of 300 protesters who had been detained, 107 remained in custody, The Associated Press reported.
The anti-NATO protesters marched from a so-called “peace camp” set up on the outskirts of Strasbourg, where security is already tight. As many as 30,000 police officers are on duty in the city and just over the border in Kehl and Baden-Baden, Germany, where some events will take place.
The war in Afghanistan was the first time that NATO invoked its Article 5, which requires collective defense of a member under attack. It was an important signal of support for the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, and maintaining the alliance was always considered more important than the inefficiencies of the effort, where each national parliament could decide what its troops could do. But Mr. Obama’s approach reflects a decision that to salvage the war now requires a dominant American role.
“As a candidate, Obama had expectations that Europe would make a serious increase in troop levels after he became president,” said Charles A. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But there is a realization now that Europe’s main contribution will be police trainers, economic assistance and development assistance.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and his British counterpart, John Hutton, have publicly warned that the performance of some European troops demonstrates that NATO risks slipping toward a two-tiered alliance. In that event, it would be divided between those that can and will fight, like Britain, Canada, France and Poland, and those that cannot or will not because of public opinion at home.
In many cases, European capitals have placed severe restrictions on their forces assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or I.S.A.F. That has been such a hindrance to the war effort, in the view of some American commanders, that they ruefully say the alliance mission’s initials now stand for “I Saw America Fight.”
To be sure, a number of NATO and other partner nations have sent troops to Afghanistan who have fought and died in percentages larger than those of the American military. Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch and French conventional forces have shed much blood, and commando units from some of the smaller, newer NATO allies in the Baltics have punched far above their weight, according to American Special Operations commanders.
But even in allied countries whose soldiers have fought so well, public opinion does not support an increase of troops sent to what seems to be an endless war far away in a country that has always ejected foreign occupiers.
Under Mr. Obama’s plan, the United States is scheduled next year to take over from the Europeans the command in southern Afghanistan, which has seen the worst resurgence of violence. The United States will retain the command in fiercely contested eastern Afghanistan, across from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, where Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that Osama bin Laden and important Qaeda leaders reside.
That means that by next year, the allies will be in charge only in the relatively combat-free northern and western regions.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Holbrooke understood early on that European members of NATO would not provide many troops beyond the approximately 30,000 already there, led by Britain, Germany and France. Instead, the Europeans will focus on the training of the police, of the army and of the civilian administration. The new goal, according to American military planners and NATO-nation diplomats, is to produce an Afghan Army of some 220,000 troops and an enlarged police force of 180,000.
What Afghanistan needs, a senior German official said, is not more foreign soldiers but more Afghan troops and police officers. Germany is sending in new police mentoring teams, and several hundred more police officers and gendarmes will come from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain, according to the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. France is trying to coordinate a second pillar of the European police force in Afghanistan to do training in the countryside for periods of up to 11 months. That project, which European officials say is more efficient than trying to send local police officers to Kabul, can have a European label.
Europeans will also concentrate on the “civilian surge” to help create functioning Afghan political, judicial and security structures in the countryside.
Daniel P. Fata, the Pentagon’s senior official for European and NATO issues during the Bush administration, said that Mr. Obama must not lower the NATO flag in Afghanistan, as that might provide allies an excuse to go home. “No European country wants to be the first to leave Afghanistan,” said Mr. Fata, a vice president with the Cohen Group, a global business consulting practice. “But many would be happy to be the second, third or fourth.”
Europeans praise the new policy, which “includes for the first time the words ‘exit strategy,’ ” another senior German official said. “But if the real problem is in western Pakistan, for that no one – not Europe and not the U.S. – has any easy answer.”
The New York Times
By THOM SHANKER and STEVEN ERLANGER
Steven Erlanger reported from Strasbourg, France, and Thom Shanker from Washington.