NATO's Role in Afghanistan Strains Alliance The prolonged deployment of NATO troops in Afghanistan has sparked debate in Europe about the alliance's ultimate mission. Some European lawmakers question the purpose of sending European forces to fight a war far from home.
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NATO's Role in Afghanistan Strains Alliance

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NATO's Role in Afghanistan Strains Alliance

NATO's Role in Afghanistan Strains Alliance

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We turn this morning in our series on Afghanistan to NATO's role in the conflict.

NATO's purpose when it was created in 1949 was, as some put it, to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down. After the Soviet Union collapsed, many people asked what is NATO for. The answer: first, the intervention in Kosovo, and then after 9/11, thousands of NATO troops committed to Afghanistan.

But as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, that move created strains within the alliance in Europe.

ROB GIFFORD: Well, here in a snow-covered forest in central Norway, the debate about the new role of NATO comes into sharp focus. I'm walking through the forest with a squad of six Norwegian soldiers in full combat fatigues.

(Soundbite of gun shots)

GIFFORD: Suddenly, we just come under attack from the side, from some mock enemy up ahead, and the forces are running for cover, diving into the snow beside the road here and beside this one building. This clearly is the front line of the new NATO training. Not to combat Soviet forces to the East, but the resurgent Taliban in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of gun shots)

Lieutenant LARS JANSON (Norwegian Army): My name is Lieutenant Lars Janson, and I just returned from my third tour in Afghanistan with the Norwegian Army. I think that there has to be military forces in Afghanistan to keep it calm if there's going to be any hope for Afghanistan at all.

GIFFORD: Not everyone in Norway agrees with Lt. Janson. Norwegian troops are largely in the north of Afghanistan. Some do have a combat role, but many are involved only in reconstruction. Even that is controversial for some members of the Norwegian government.

Mr. HALLGEIR LANGELAND (Parliament Member, Socialist Left Party, Norway): I'm anti-NATO. I'm against NATO, and I always been.

GIFFORD: Member of parliament Hallgeir Langeland of the Socialist Left Party, current part of Norway's ruling coalition.

Mr. LANGELAND: NATO is an organization very much ruled by, at the time, George Bush, and what's interest of him. And NATO is an organization who is building for more war.

GIFFORD: And it's not just in Norway that strains are emerging within the alliance. NATO now includes 26 members. While the Dutch and the British have sent troops to the combat zones in the south of Afghanistan with the Americans and the Canadians, many other countries, such as Germany, have - like the Norwegians - sent fewer combat troops and not sent them to the more dangerous south.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: German troops are on display whenever a foreign dignitary visits Berlin. But for obvious historical reasons, the Germans do not flout their military might. When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested last month, though, that thought NATO was in danger of evolving into a two-tier alliance, it ruffled some feathers in Berlin.

Karsten Vogt is the coordinator for German-American cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry.

Mr. KARSTEN VOGT (Coordinator, German-American Cooperation, German Foreign Ministry): We are the third-largest contingent in Afghanistan, after the Americans and the British. But if we are pressured, we get stubborn, and obviously it has a very counterproductive effect.

GIFFORD: For others, though, more NATO involvement, even as far away as Afghanistan, is a necessary part of Germany's emergence as a normal, mature European power.

Here in the heart of Berlin, it's hard to get away from the monuments to history. I'm standing beside the memorial to the Soviet soldiers who were killed in World War II. Not far from the old Berlin wall, the Holocaust memorial and the old parliament building, the Reichstag.

With me is General Harald Kujat, who was the former chief of defense of the German armed forces.

So how much do you think the German role should change within NATO and, indeed, within Europe?

General HARALD KUJAT (Former Chairman, NATO Military Committee): Without the alliance, we would have no German unity at all, or we might even have a German unity under a communist rule. So I think now that we have benefited from this very specific situation, we should pay back and be among the exporters of security.

(Soundbite of car engine)

GIFFORD: That exporting of security has already been shown in how NATO has helped former Eastern European and Soviet states be integrated into a broader Europe. Countries like Poland and the Baltic States are all now members of NATO and the European Union, and the transition has been amazingly smooth.

Lithuanian Undersecretary of Defense Renatas Norkus says that NATO's soft power has become as important as its hard military power.

Mr. RENATAS NORKUS (Undersecretary of Defense, Republic of Lithuania): It is very important for Lithuania, I believe, as for other European countries as a backbone of the Western values, liberal democracy and the rule of law. Why Georgia and Ukraine are so eager to get into alliance one day? Because it is an alliance that cherishes the universal liberal democracy values.

GIFFORD: The problem is that in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, those benefits are visible and tangible, and those countries have been incorporated into a broader Europe without the shedding of blood.

Afghanistan is a whole different story. The mix of soft and hard power that NATO is trying to bring to a tribal, non-European society is proving a lot more difficult. Whether NATO can resolve its differences and succeed in Afghanistan will be a sign of whether its new mission in the world can continue beyond the borders of Europe.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow, in our series, we explore possible ways to succeed in the conflict in Afghanistan. So far, we've heard about the mixed results reported by military leaders there and the Taliban's shifting tactics. Hear those stories at

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