Suicide and roadside bombings have increased in Afghanistan, making this the most violent year since 2001. Some NATO countries commitment to the Afghan mission appears to be wavering at a time when the U.S. is urging NATO allies to do more.
The spike in roadside bombings has made this year the most violent since the Taliban was pushed from power in 2001.
When NATO assumed control of Afghanistan's security just over a year ago, the 26 nations agreed the mission would be a blend of stabilization efforts, reconstruction, and economic development. But the mission has changed dramatically over the past year.
There's a growing insurgency, cross-border raids from pro-Taliban sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, opium production is soaring, and the government under Hamad Karzai is ineffectual.
Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this has made Afghanistan a hard sell back home.
"What's happened over the last year or so is that the political elites in Europe are getting nervous about how they talk to their publics about why they have troops in a place as far away as Afghanistan," said Smith.
From the start, there was a split in how NATO allies engaged in Afghanistan. Some nations — the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and the Netherlands — assumed a military role, fighting the Taliban in the south and east of the country. Other allies, such as Italy, Spain, and Germany focused on reconstruction efforts in the quieter, relatively safer areas of Afghanistan.
Robert Hunter, a senior advisor at Rand Corporation, and an ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, says some countries simply will not base their troops in dangerous areas.
"A number of the NATO allies are simply not doing enough," he said. "The have what are called caveats, meaning I won't do this, I won't do that, I won't do the other thing. In other words, I won't get involved in combat."
But there's increasing anger and fatigue in Australia, Holland, Britain, and Canada over their troops bearing the brunt of the violence in Afghanistan.
Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been ratcheting up pressure on the other NATO allies to do more, asking for about 3,500 soldiers to help train Afghan troops, 16 helicopters, and three infantry battalions with a willingness to fight. So far, there's been no agreement by alliance members.
The reluctance may be because the U.S. never made a full commitment to the war in Afghanistan, said Mark Schneider, a senior vice president with the International Crisis Group.
"Instead of having available a significant number of troops to be deployed in Afghanistan, the U.S. found itself directing most of its military, most of its resources, to Iraq," said Schneider.
During congressional testimony last week, Gates said he was frustrated and disappointed by the lack of commitment amongst NATO members. But at the end of an alliance meeting in Scotland on Friday, Gates had toned down his comments, saying he understood political realities and that NATO needs to draw up a new strategy.
"We need to be thinking, where do we want to be in Afghanistan? Where do we want Afghanistan to be in three to five years?" Gates asked.
Schneider said NATO allies need to understand that Afghanistan is not just a U.S. concern, and that the "potential threat to their countries as well as to the United States if Afghanistan is taken over by extremist Islamic forces would be very serious."
Gates said the U.S. is not planning to send in more troops to Afghanistan, even if the troop shortfalls are not covered by NATO. For now, things will remain status quo. The Dutch have indicated they will extend their commitment another two years, Britain shows no sign of pulling out yet, the Canadians are wavering but still there.
The big question is what happens further down the road, said Smith, with the Center for Strategic International Studies.
"What will happen if the Dutch, the Canadians, and the Brits reach a breaking point, where they cannot maintain the levels of commitment that they've maintained to date? What will happen if the other NATO allies fail to step to the plate?" she said.