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NATO: the shape of the NATO alliance in Afghanistan is changing.
At the beginning of this month, Dutch troops left the restive province of Uruzgan, and Canadian soldiers appear to be set to leave next year. At the same time, the U.S. forces surging into Afghanistan are finding new ways to work with their NATO counterparts.
NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report from Kunduz, where German soldiers are technically in command of the incoming American surge.
QUIL LAWRENCE: About 1,800 Dutch soldiers left Uruzgan province last week after a four-year mission. By the end of their time in Uruzgan, criticism of the Dutch practice of restrained use of force had turned to admiration from the U.S. military proponents of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes winning over the population to defeat the Taliban.
The Dutch public was not convinced, and when their prime minister attempted to extend the troops' commitment last winter, his government fell.
Brigadier General Leo Beulen is a senior NATO officer who happens to be Dutch.
LEO BEULEN: I think if you ask the soldiers, everybody wants to stay here to, let's say, finish the job, as they say. But it's also quite clear that if politics calls us home, we go home. There's no question about it.
LAWRENCE: Beulen is one of a few Dutch nationals who will stay on as part of the NATO staff in Kabul. He says that American troops will fill in the gap, joining Australian soldiers who will remain in Uruzgan.
That's a pattern that's being seen across Afghanistan, as some 30,000 additional Americans have arrived. In the south, Americans are relieving British troops who have spent five bloody summers in Helmand province. The same goes for Kandahar where the Canadians are expected to keep their government's deadline to leave next year.
But dozens of nations still have troops in Afghanistan, and in some key areas, they work differently from the Americans - issues as important as when to shoot and when not to. General Beulen says this has not been a problem.
BEULEN: The set of rules of engagement is quite clear and defined, so there is no difference between the rules of engagement. But some countries have national caveats on some of the rules of engagement, which are always more strict than the general rules of engagement.
LAWRENCE: That may not be the case for long. Each country's specific rules about when and how to engage are classified, but the issue has been controversial of late, with some American troops complaining that they were being so restricted that they couldn't return fire when under attack.
With troops now integrating in more combat situations, General David Petraeus, the new NATO commander, issued a clarification yesterday through his NATO spokesman, Brigadier General Josef Blotz, that the rules of engagement must be harmonized.
JOSEF BLOTZ: This point is intended to ensure commanders apply the guidance consistently across the force, recusing the possibility an overly cautious commander would hinder their troops' ability to defend themselves.
LAWRENCE: And there have been other adjustments to make. The NATO standard maximum time for getting a medevac helicopter to wounded soldiers is 90 minutes - the U.S. standard is just one hour.
As American reinforcements have deployed, some of the other NATO partners have been hustling to match that standard. Major Parker Frawley of the U.S. Army's Fourth Combat Aviation Brigade in Mazar-e-Sharif described how the Norwegian medevac team in nearby Maimana moved their barracks closer to the airstrip and cut their prep time in half.
PARKER FRAWLEY: Once they learned that we were coming out to Maimana, the Norwegians have shortened their notice to move time down to 15 minutes to match our standards, so that they could truly team with our medevac guys.
LAWRENCE: But the integration is not without its pitfalls. Speaking informally, U.S. military officers can be harshly critical of many of the NATO partners here - for example, in the north, where the Taliban presence has grown rapidly over the past five years. American soldiers there are officially under German command, but the difference in resources is stark. The Americans bring many more helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles to the fight.
Still, the cooperation has its lighter moments. In a recent nighttime engagement in Kunduz, a German officer ordered his cannons to shoot illumination rounds over the heads of American troops to light their way. The Americans joked afterwards that it was the first time a German had fired artillery in their direction since World War II.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.
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