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Published: Monday, 2/18/2008

Afghan decline

THE situation in Afghanistan is in danger of falling apart and risks bringing down the NATO alliance.

Afghanistan is where it all started - the preparation of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. response to them. Shortly after that awful September day, the United States devised a coordinated military plan.

With forces of the Afghan Northern Alliance, the United States quickly and efficiently overthrew the Taliban, which had hosted al-Qaeda, and drove them out. The Taliban were replaced by a pro-U.S. government headed by President Hamid Karzai.

Rather than consolidate the defeat of the Taliban by securing Afghanistan, the Bush Administration instead attacked Iraq. The eventual shortfall of international forces in Afghanistan was met to some degree by America's NATO allies and Australia. In the process NATO's mission, hitherto considered to be confined to Europe, was expanded.

The Bush Administration considered getting NATO to fight in Afghanistan a triumph but now there are two troublesome developments.

First, the Taliban are coming back, reemerging as a more tenacious enemy than had been anticipated. Second, the Europeans are less eager to fight and die in Afghanistan while the United States keeps 170,000 forces tied down in Iraq, a war they don't support.

So, what looked like a U.S. policy triumph threatens to become a policy disaster in the demise of NATO, a discovery that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are belatedly making.

They have tried unsuccessfully to exhort, encourage, or bully the Europeans into doing more in Afghanistan. Even the British have suffered the indignity of having their nominee for special envoy to the United Nations from Afghanistan nixed by Mr. Karzai.

So, it now appears that unless the administration backs off, either by deciding to stop harassing the Europeans for more troops or by beginning to end the Iraq war, thus freeing up more U.S. troops, not only will the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate toward chaos but NATO will also become meaningless as an alliance, having failed in its mission in that country.

If that happens, you can count NATO as one more casualty of the Iraq war.



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