KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO's reluctance to match the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan may not undercut President Barack Obama's new war strategy so long as the allies carry through on pledges to contribute more nonmilitary assistance.
But in the longer run, an uneven sharing of the combat load in Afghanistan could doom U.S. hopes for relying on NATO as a partner in future conflicts. While the alliance celebrated its 60th anniversary and Obama hailed its more cohesive spirit, none of the leaders inside the Strasbourg castle alluded openly to the hard prospect that NATO troops may stay largely shielded while American soldiers are exposed to most of the battles and casualties.
The summit over the weekend ended with NATO's agreement to contribute 5,000 more troops to bolster the intensified U.S. push for more security in Afghanistan's cities and training for beleaguered Afghan soldiers and police.
The NATO additions are not insubstantial. But they pale beside Obama's decision to send 21,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines this year to buttress 38,000 American troops fighting the Taliban. The new NATO contingent — adding to the alliance's 35,000 troops in Afghanistan — would even be outstripped by the 10,000 more troops that senior American commanders are urging Obama to deploy to the conflict next year.
Left unsettled is how a NATO that was built on the principle of sharing security burdens can continue to play a role in the global effort to defeat Islamic extremism if it is unwilling to assume more of the risks in tight corners like Afghanistan.
"That's a significant problem for the alliance, going forward," said Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO who is now a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"We all agreed to go into Afghanistan. The essence of the alliance is that we share responsibility and we share commitments," Burns said. "And for some of the countries to essentially refuse to send their troops to combat areas, I still think, is an important issue that cannot be forgotten."
U.S. congressional leaders have been vocal in bringing up reminders. At a hearing last week on U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the allies' stance in Afghanistan was "nothing short of pitiful."
But generally the Americans have taken on the bulk of the fight against the Taliban and against terrorists like al-Qaida.
With the first U.S. surge troops soon expected to arrive, a delegation of senior U.S. officials visited Kabul on Sunday to deal with the knotty issue of Afghanistan's approaching election. U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen met much of the day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other candidates and government officials.
High on the agenda is settling the question of who will serve as president after Karzai's term expires in May, since the presidential election will not be held until August. Holbrooke said Sunday it appears that Karzai will remain in office in that interim period. But the diplomat carefully added that the U.S. is taking no position on Karzai's re-election effort.
Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also welcomed Iran to join Afghan stabilization talks in "whatever forums work for them."
The American willingness to include Iran in talks on Afghanistan's future is indicative of the new administration's tack to broaden the world's involvement in what was mostly a U.S. enterprise during the Bush years.
But the uneasy outlook for NATO's role in Afghanistan is central to a still-unsettled debate about whether the alliance should return to its focus on preventing conflict within its own borders. NATO was created in April 1949 as a bulwark against a Soviet land invasion to conquer western Europe, but since the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NATO has been an alliance in search of a reason for being.
Obama's strategy for Afghanistan contains themes that the Europeans have been preaching for years. They include the need to more closely integrate the roles of combat and nonmilitary activities such as developing the Afghan economy, promoting reconciliation with some insurgents, and finding more effective ways of strengthening the credibility of the Afghan government.
Mullen said Obama's new war strategy makes clear that the U.S. needs help from allies to build a firmer foundation for stabilizing Afghanistan.
"Probably the most important part is to create governance in the country at every level — not just the national level but also at the district level, the provincial level," he said in a speech in New York on Thursday before flying to the NATO summit.
But without real harmony, Mullen added, "it won't make any difference how many more troops we send it — it's not going to work."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.
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