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NATO chief's plan takes aim at 'caveats'

Proposed change to Afghan mission rules would free up more troops in 'emergencies'

Doug Saunders, Globe & Mail, 24 Nov 06

Article Link


BRUSSELS — The head of NATO plans to push for a new rule to force countries to provide troops in "emergencies" in Afghanistan, a measure aimed at delivering desperately needed help to Canada and other countries bearing the brunt of the action in the country's conflict-ridden south.


Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Dutch Secretary-General of the 26-member military alliance, said he was confident that countries such as Germany could be persuaded to assist the isolated Canadian and British forces in the south through a new "emergency" provision to be introduced at a NATO summit in Riga next week. Some countries, such as Germany, have used exemptions in their NATO agreements, known as "caveats," to escape dangerous forms of combat or avoid activity in high-risk regions.


Conditions in the south are better and Canadians less isolated than commanders and media reports have suggested, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview yesterday at NATO headquarters in Brussels.


The day before, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was pledging not to allow her country's 2,700 soldiers to fight in the south. She invoked a caveat in her country's NATO agreement that restricts German activity to the comparatively peaceful north and to strictly reconstructive activities rather than active combat.


"The German army is carrying out a difficult and important role in the north and we do not want to put the success of this mission in jeopardy," Ms. Merkel told the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's legislature. "I don't see anyone who seriously wants to endanger the relative security that we have achieved in the north."


Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said that the refusal by Germany, France, Italy, Norway and other NATO members to assist in the south has created a serious problem. He said at least 2,500 additional soldiers are needed, but unavailable in the region, which is held by Canadian and British troops with assistance from the United States and several smaller countries. The caveats, which are usually introduced to satisfy domestic political concerns, have proven impossible to eliminate. That has prompted Mr. de Hoop Scheffer to propose a compromise: a new rule to be introduced at next week's summit that would require member countries to break their caveats in events that have been deemed "emergencies."


"My central line is that in case of emergency -- what the military call in extremis situations -- every ally should come to the help of another ally, be it in the north, the west, the east or the south," he said.


"And I think the German government would agree with me: German forces would come to the assistance of their Canadian colleagues, as Canadian or Dutch forces would come to the north to assist the Germans if that case arose. That's how an alliance works."


Mr. de Hoop Scheffer didn't say what would constitute an emergency and other NATO officials said the concept had not been defined. "I think the first one to decide what would be an emergency would be the commander of ISAF the International Security and Assistance Force, because he's on the ground with the operation."


The failure to persuade other major NATO countries to help and the practice of demanding caveats has hampered NATO's ability to respond to the Taliban. Some of these caveats preclude fighting at night or actively engaging an enemy. "Lifting caveats is as important as, or perhaps even more important than, extra forces," he said. "My ambition . . . is to live in a caveat-free world. But I am a realist, and I live in the real world, and that's not achievable."


His comments came as other officials in Afghanistan, including the top UN diplomat, have said that NATO's focus on battling the Taliban is hurting the country's ability to find stability and growth.


"At the moment NATO has a very optimistic assessment. They think they can win the war. But there is no quick fix," Tom Koenigs, head of the UN's Afghan mission, told the Guardian newspaper on Saturday. "They the Afghan army can win. But against an insurgency like that, international troops cannot win."


Mr. de Hoop Scheffer responded angrily to this, suggesting that the UN and other agencies have left too much of the nation-building work to NATO soldiers, who are often ill-equipped for such reconstruction and humanitarian work.


However, he countered claims by Canadian commanders that Canada and Britain have been largely left alone in the south, with little support from NATO allies except the United States and the Dutch.


"It is pessimistic to say that NATO allies are not stepping up to the plate," he said. "It's not true. Don't forget there are a lot of allies in the south already -- Romanians, Danes, Estonians, the U.K., the Netherlands, the U.S. and, of course, the Canadians, not to forget them." Many of the smaller countries have only contributed a few hundred soldiers to the Afghanistan mission.


"On the whole, I think that a number of allied countries have come to the plate, and some of them can and some of them should do more," he said. "I won't name names and lay blame, but some can and some should."


NATO officials yesterday countered claims made by U.S. officials this week that Canada had "drawn the short straw" by being posted in the deadly Kandahar province. They argued that General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, specifically asked that his forces be assigned to that posting, in order to compensate for the passive image Canadians had developed during the Balkan conflicts.

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