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Afghanistan to top NATO talks

By Jackie Dent for CNN
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(CNN) -- When graphic artists were drawing NATO's symbol in 1953 -- a compass and a circle -- the world was operating under the cloud of a Cold War.

The circle symbolized unity and cooperation, the compass represented the common road. These ideals were meant to unify Allies against their communist foes.

Next week, President George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are expected to be among the crowd of world leaders and heads of state gathering in Riga, Latvia, for the NATO summit, motivated -- and likely challenged -- by the ideals of the symbol.

For two days, 26 member countries will debate the future of the body, which has played an important role in Western and global stability for over 50 years.

But with worsening conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an increasing fear of terrorist groups getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, analysts say the pressure will be on member states to provide an ever stronger and cohesive vision for the future of NATO.

Complex agenda

The talks are likely to be dominated by NATO's mission in Afghanistan, where an insurgency is hampering operations, and the death toll of Allied soldiers is rising.

The U.S. government said at a press conference this week they would be putting a number of problems with the mission at the heart of Riga's talks. "For us, the number one issue is Afghanistan," said R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs.

Another major discussion will be NATO's evolution into a body with a global outreach. How should the alliance engage politically and operationally with non-members across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific?

Other areas of discussion will cover Eastern Europe, including the future of the relationship between NATO and Russia, and whether Ukraine and Georgia are credible candidates for NATO membership.

And there will be the perennial issue of how to fund the modernization of NATO forces. There will be pressure on Allies to increase their defense budgets so as to upgrade military capabilities, particularly in light of the war in Afghanistan.

At the pre-Riga press conference this week, Burns also raised concerns about how ill-equipped NATO is in fighting the insurgency in the southern regions of Afghanistan and hopes to encourage European allies to spend more on artillery.

Western leaders will be struggling with a raft of daunting issues under the ideal of the circle and compass. Can the alliance unify and cooperate? Are they traveling on a common road?

What Afghanistan means

Many of the complexities of NATO as a body are illustrated in Afghanistan, the site of their first major combat operation in its history, far from the heart of Europe. There are currently around 30,000 soldiers spread throughout the war-torn country, including troops from 11 non-NATO members.

Failure would be a considerable burden. As Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Secretary General of NATO said recently at a press conference with Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan: "We'll not fail because we cannot afford to fail."

Two leading transatlantic security and defense commentators, Professor Paul Cornish, from Chatham House in London, and Julian Lindley-French from the University of Munich, have added gravitas to the situation, suggesting that failure and a lack of commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq could represent the demise in the concept of the West itself.

"If the West accepts this picture of defeat, this could mean the final and irrevocable demise of the liberal moment that the West ground out of the Cold War," they wrote in a thought piece.

"These are the real stakes at what should be NATO's 'Get Real' Summit, rather than the petty minutiae of contemporary intra-Alliance politics."

While the two may urge world leaders to realize that Riga is a "grand strategic moment", many observers say it will be hard to avoid politics on the conference floor.

And there are a number of controversial and difficult sticking points with the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Fighting fair

Analysts say the biggest NATO problem in Afghanistan is national caveats -- limits imposed by countries on what their soldiers can do and where they can fight.

While casualties among Canadian and British troops fighting the Taliban in the south are rising, German troops are mostly involved in peacekeeping work in quiet northern areas.

The top ranks of NATO, de Hoop Scheffer and supreme military commander U.S. Marine General James Jones, have insisted these caveats be lifted to get more troops into the troubled south, as has the U.S. and Britain.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said Berlin has no plans to change Germany's current position.

NATO troops also operate as provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan, where they are involved in civilian-type work, ranging from rebuilding roads to mediation between conflicting parties. Troops with caveats are largely involved in this sort of mission in Afghanistan.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization, said there are moves to create "Afghan development zones" (ADZ) areas, particularly in the south, where NATO troops would assist in creating better security conditions so reconstruction and development work can take place.

The U.S. government has also suggested that NATO should also get more involved with the United Nations and the European Union in the issue of reforming the Afghan security forces and the poppy problem.

Should NATO do reconstruction?

However, some member states, and non-government groups, are concerned that military involvement in reconstruction is not appropriate and is part of a broader U.S. agenda to see NATO move beyond its conception as a purely defensive body into a security player.

The French Minister of Defense, Michele Alliot-Marie, voiced these concerns in a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Times and Le Figaro.

"Reconstruction missions must necessarily fall under the authority of competent organizations, particularly the United Nations and the European Union. Transforming NATO into an organization whose mission is to rebuild both democracy and a nation's economy corresponds neither to its legitimate mandate nor its means."

The piece by the French defense minister also highlighted another difficult discussion within NATO -- expanding the body into a global alliance by increasing partnerships beyond Europe.

A new global force

While she welcomed the contribution of Australia and Japan in Afghanistan, for example, she argues the organization "should remain a European-Atlantic military alliance."

"The development of a global partnership could in fact not only dilute the natural solidarity between Europeans and North Americans in a vague ensemble, but also, and especially, send a bad political message: That of a campaign launched by the West against those who don't share their ideas," she wrote.

The U.S. government, however, takes a different line and is eager to promote NATO as a global body at Riga.

Burns, at the briefing, said Bush would propose a new NATO partnership with Asian and northern European nations, which included Japan, South Korea, Australia, Sweden and Finland. He said the U.S. was not proposing membership but a "closer relationship" from a military point of view.

"We seek a partnership with them so that we can train more intensively, from a military point of view, and grow closer to them because we are deployed with them," he said.

The analysts Cornish and Lindley-French urge NATO members to act decisively at the summit by remaining committed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and expanding themselves.

"If NATO stands still, it will collapse under its own weight. If the Alliance is to fulfil its potential as a cornerstone of Western and global stability, the Riga Summit must make the argument that national military power can better be organized collectively, that the Alliance is more than the sum of its parts, and, moreover, that NATO should reach out to like-minded states the world over."


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There are currently around 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

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