NATO showing wear and tear

By every measure, the war in Afghanistan is going badly, and NATO is showing the strains. After sacrificing Afghanistan on the altar of its war of choice in Iraq, the Bush administration appears belatedly to have realized the stakes of a Taliban comeback. President Bush has rightly decided to deploy an additional 3,200 Marines, and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has pledged to bankroll an increase of the Afghan National Army, from 70,000 to 80,000 troops. (Gates' predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, wanted to hold that army to 50,000, in a country half again as large as Iraq and with a larger population.)

But these steps have proved insufficient to hold together the international fighting force in Afghanistan. That's because most of the NATO countries don't want to fight — they believe they signed up for peacekeeping duty, not a "hot war" — and the rest have battle fatigue. The latest casualty is Canada, where antiwar sentiment threatens to bring down the government. A high-level panel has recommended that the government insist on the deployment of at least 1,000 combat troops from another country (presumably the United States) to the free-fire zone in southern Afghanistan, while the Canadian troops are shifted to the more peaceful north to help with nation building and training Afghan soldiers. Expect a showdown at the next NATO summit in Bucharest in April.

As this page has repeatedly argued, there is no military solution in Afghanistan — but there could be a catastrophic defeat without sufficient military force to provide security for reconstruction. The Taliban is having devilish success with its strategy of targeting aid workers, school headmasters and officials cooperating with the government of President Hamid Karzai, and inspiring terror with the imported technique of suicide bombing. Karzai this week told his parliament that the number of children kept from school has increased 50 percent over last year, to 300,000 (though the overall number attending school is still four times what it was during the Taliban's reign of misery). Meanwhile, the number of bombs dropped by NATO forces has soared from 86 in 2004 to 3,572 in 2007, a sign that counterinsurgency efforts are being sabotaged by a need to blow up Taliban fighters regardless of the toll on civilians.

Washington has been begging its allies to do more fighting for years, to no avail. Now European publics are less inclined than ever to put their troops in harm's way. To keep NATO from disintegrating, the U.S. must accept that it will have to do more of the military heavy lifting and allow Canada and Britain to do less. In return, Washington should increase its efforts to persuade its partners to spend far more on grass-roots economic, political and infrastructure development. Roads, irrigation, markets, agricultural aid and better security — in short, a humanitarian "surge" — offer the only long-term hope for peace and stability in Afghanistan. And that's a mission that could unite NATO.

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