DEH HASSAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - With the world marking five years since the invasion of Iraq, a NATO-led force of some 40 states is at pains to argue it is not losing a longer war in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan.
But it stresses that conflict is far from won.
In a dusty mud-brick village in Afghanistan’s far north, a girl of 11 starts her first day at a school funded by German aid and struggles to pinpoint her country on a world map.
NATO officials say building schools and repairing vital infrastructure in parallel to military efforts are the way ahead in Afghanistan more than six years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in pursuit of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
But in the run-up to a NATO summit in Romania next month, they worry the battle is not just for Afghan hearts and minds in the face of a relentless Taliban insurgency, but to clarify domestic perceptions as hazy as the little girl’s geography.
NATO Supreme Commander General John Craddock, on a regular visit to Afghanistan this week, angrily rejected an assessment by veteran peacemaker Paddy Ashdown that the alliance was in disarray and could face defeat in Afghanistan.
“I think that is a profoundly incorrect statement,” Craddock told reporters.
But NATO itself is not shy of shock tactics, opening a briefing with visiting journalists by posing — then countering — the question: “Are the insurgents winning the war?”
Echoing remarks by his predecessor General James Jones, Craddock called for better coordination of security and reconstruction work, urged NATO nations to end restrictions on the use of their forces, and asked for more equipment and funds.
Jones warned in a report in January that NATO was in a strategic stalemate in Afghanistan and was “not winning the war.” Urgent steps were needed to regain lost momentum.
“As an eternal optimist, I hope the deliverables match my expectations,” Craddock said when asked about the April 2-4 Bucharest meeting.
“I would like to see a strong push ... to fill the gap between what we need and what we have. I would like to see continuing efforts to reduce constraints and restrictions.”
Craddock also urged a clear vision statement that could be passed on to troops on the ground “to enable an understanding of intent ... and how it is success can be achieved.”
He argued the Taliban and allied insurgents operated in the gap between the resources NATO has and what it should have.
“We take away that gap, we take away their operating space. If they don’t have space to operate, they’re ineffective and we should see significant enhancements in our security situation.”
Craddock called for nations to provide more hardware such as helicopters and surveillance aircraft as well as troops, and trainers for the Afghan National Army (ANA), which NATO hopes eventually will take over all security duties.
While the Afghan army is now more than 50,000 strong, it is far from a target strength of more than 80,000 and short of equipment and trainers.
NATO has filled only 33 of 71 projected training teams and while it argues that the Afghan force is increasingly capable, a training exercise Craddock viewed in the northern province of Kunduz made its shortages of basic equipment painfully clear.
A unit puffing from the exertion of a mock pursuit of insurgents shambled to attention clutching ancient assault rifles and wearing an array of protective headgear inherited from successive foreign interventions in their country.
Craddock pointed to the success of employment-generating projects carried out by the United States in the east financed by $200 million of U.S. funding provided last year.
While acknowledging some states did not have deep pockets, he said such projects had helped steer young men away from insurgency, and added: “I think some countries need to scrutinize what their priorities are.”
Polls have shown Afghan support for international troops remains high, despite a dip seen last year as civilian casualties in air strikes increased as fighting intensified.
But many Afghans have long questioned the approach of channeling funds through international organizations and contractors and some doubt the wisdom of pouring billions of dollars into a big foreign force to fight the insurgents.
Abdullah Amini, cultural adviser to the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said the Afghan government had long argued for funding for a larger army.
“Right now if we had 100,000 ANA, we wouldn’t need 40 or 50,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan,” he said. “If we spend $100 on one U.S. or British soldier a day in Afghanistan, five dollars would be good enough for one Afghan soldier.
“Afghan people are going to fight a lot better than the international soldiers — they know every mountain, every valley and they know their people — who’s the enemy and who’s not.
“Right now we have close to 60,000 ANA, but do we have even two helicopters?
“If the international community really want to save their soldiers and spend their money wisely, they have to support the Afghan security forces ... that would be more beneficial than sending more soldiers to the country.”
Raymond Dubois, a former adviser to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and now a senior analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the foreign commitment to Afghanistan must be long-term.
“If we get Afghanistan right ... there will be considerable benefits not only to Afghanistan but the region,” he said after traveling to Afghanistan with Craddock.
“Just in a strategic, political, military sense, you don’t walk away from this country.”
Editing by Giles Elgood