Nato at crossroads over commitment to Afghanistan campaign

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The Independent Online

The Nato mission in Afghanistan could fail unless there is greater commitment from member countries, a meeting of the alliance will be told today.

The conference in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, comes amid bitter divisions among the 26 Nato allies over troop commitments, and follows accusations by the US that other countries are not pulling their weight.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, making a brief visit to London yesterday, said it was essential that Nato demonstrated its long-term commitment to Afghanistan, adding: "We obviously need to share the burden in the alliance so everybody is contributing."

Ms Rice admitted that the Afghan mission was proving far harder than anticipated and had evolved from a peacekeeping role into a full-blown counter-insurgency battle. "The alliance is facing a real test here and it is a test of the alliance's strength," she said. "But we should not underestimate the transformation that Nato itself has gone through in really learning how to fight this fight."

Ms Rice said Nato was facing a "real test" because some countries were staying out of more dangerous areas such as the province of Helmand, where British and Canadian forces are fighting a resurgent Taliban.

Canada's 2,500 troops have taken part in some of the heaviest fighting and suffered 78 deaths. The government in Ottawa has warned that, unless reinforcements are supplied, it will not keep its troops in the country beyond next year. As Ms Rice stepped up calls for more combat troops, Britain said it would soon deploy 16 Air Assault Brigade to Afghanistan.

The force, which includes the Parachute Regiment's 2nd and 3rd Battalions, will replace 52 Infantry Brigade in April in the latest six-monthly rotation of UK forces. The total number of British troops – about 7,700 – will remain the same.

Newspaper reports in France have suggested that 700 of its paratroopers could be sent to the south. Last week, Belgium agreed to send four F-16 fighter jets to Kandahar. Germany is deploying about 200 troops to a quick-reaction force in the relatively peaceful north.