'If NATO fails in Afghanistan, NATO fails." Such is the brutal and accurate assessment of an unidentified Western diplomat cited in the Brussels-based International Crisis Group's latest report on Afghanistan. And NATO, while not exactly failing, is also not set up for success in this first mission outside Europe.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will try at a NATO summit in Latvia to get more troops for the violent southern theatre in which Canadian, Dutch, British and American troops are fighting.
He is right to ask his NATO partners for more help, but the answer is likely to be discouraging. Only Poland has pledged a further 900 troops for Afghanistan, and Romania another 200. But the big European countries (Germany, France, Italy and Spain) are unwilling to commit more soldiers or move the ones they have in the country from relatively peaceful areas to the troubled southern theatre.
More troops in the south would help, but the real crisis for NATO will come in a year's time when countries will be asked to take on new two-year military assignments starting in 2008.
If countries operating in relatively safe areas of Afghanistan won't redeploy a few soldiers southward today, they'd be unlikely to volunteer their entire force structure to dangerous areas in a year's time. At which point, if the enemies of the Afghan regime can hold on, NATO's mission will completely fail.
Time, regrettably, is on side of the Taliban and their assorted allies of drug lords, corrupt officials and al-Qaeda fighters. They have safe havens in Pakistan. They can infiltrate villages and hide in the mountains. They have plenty of cash from supporters in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, plus money from the drug trade and extortion.
According to one study of 91 conflicts since the Second World War cited in the ICG report, it took an average of 14 years for governments to defeat an insurgency. Fourteen years.
Since the fall of 2005, the security situation in Afghanistan has worsened, especially in the south, despite the presence of Canadian and other forces. This year, there have been 106 suicide bombings - the latest killed two more Canadians this week - compared with 17 in 2005. The result has been an upsurge in fear, the withdrawal of NGOs from dangerous areas, and the slowing down of development work.
In any counterinsurgency, success can only come if the local population turns on the insurgents. The core of the Afghan dilemma is less the need for more troops in the south than the corruption of Afghan officials. As the ICG report notes: "Today, people are pulling back from a government that is failing them, if not preying on them."
The Afghan police are poorly equipped and trained, and often corrupt. Germany is supposed to be taking the lead NATO role in improving the police force, but this effort appears to be failing. As for the Afghan army, it, too, remains a work in progress.
What's to be done?
Roland Paris, a former Foreign Affairs official-turned-University of Ottawa professor, just won a major international award for a book on conflict resolution. In a recent article, Mr. Paris outlined six steps for NATO, including more troops for the south. The other steps: build up the Afghan army, reduce corruption, stop destroying opium crops, contain fighters moving across the Pakistani border, and provide more reconstruction aid. If NATO can't accomplish these objectives, he said, the alliance should withdraw.
His is a sensible but difficult wish list.
Rising production levels illustrate that eradicating poppy crops is doomed to failure. NATO has to design a system of buying the crops, at higher prices than the warlords will offer, and storing them for medicinal purposes. It's doubtful the ideologues in Washington would agree to such a policy.
How about the other steps? More NATO troops for the south? Unlikely. Better training for the Afghan army? Sure, but slow going. Rooting out corruption? Alas, Afghanistan lives on corruption. More reconstruction aid? Yes, of course, but only if the security situation can be stabilized. (See more troops.) Constraining fighters from crossing the Pakistani border? No chance, given the tribal affinities, Pakistan's desire to see an unstable Afghanistan, and Pakistan's own internal tensions.
So, good luck to Mr. Harper. What he seeks is only a small part of what NATO needs to succeed.