Basra Fighting may overshadow NATO Summit – Sunday Business Post

Civil war may loom again, with Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Hakim – both Shi’ite warlords – now facing-off, and Sunni tribes armed by the US increasingly disenchanted at being sidelined by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government, whose army has been unable to stop the fighting and has little sway with al-Sadr or Hakim. This fiendishly-complex tinderbox will likely overshadow next week’s NATO summit, which already had plenty on its plate.

The alliance turns 60 next year, and since Communism’s European collapse removed its founding raison d’etre, a midlife crisis ensued. After 9/11, however, NATO invoked its collective defence provision for the only time in its history, and in 2006 it took over leadership of UN-sanctioned military operations in Afghanistan.

But this new lease of life has split NATO. According to a recent report signed-off by former Supreme Commander James L Jones, nothing less than NATOs future is at stake in Afghanistan, with alliance members now in their second year of bickering over the burdens of a war that is far from won. Last year was the worst yet for western armies in Afghanistan, with 230 soldiers killed. But American, British, Dutch, Canadian and Danish troops do the fighting in the volatile east and south, while large German, French, Turkish and Italian contingents stay safe in the relatively-quiet north. Ireland has 7 personnel working with the NATO-led force, which the European Council on Foreign Relations describes as “minimal deployments well below [its] capabilities”

Canada threatens to withdraw its soldiers if other members do not step up, and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned of a “two-tier alliance”, with some countries fighting and others permanently bunkered down. In London last week, President Sarkozy promised an extra 1000 French soldiers for Afghanistan, but this was not the magnanimous offer it first seemed: France wants back in on NATOs central command, which it left in 1966. But the biggest item on Sarko’s shopping list is Anglo-American agreement on a separate EU defence structure, before France takes the EU Presidency later this year. Addressing the US Congress last November, Sarkozy called on “the Alliance to evolve concurrently with the development and strengthening of a European defense.”

A hard bargain, and one which Vladimir Putin may match, as the first Russian leader to attend a NATO summit next week. Despite the furore over Kosovo’s independence, he may ink a deal allowing NATO transit Russia en route to Afghanistan, lessening dependence on Pakistan, through which 80% of alliance supplies currently traverse. The price may be NATO snubbing Ukraine and Georgia, who hope to start the accession process soon, something Putin’s successor Dmitri Medvedev warned is “extremely troublesome for the existing structure of European ­security”, a thesis which will not prevent Albania, Croatia and Macedonia from receiving formal membership invitations in Bucharest.

However, as the Iraqi example shows, extra material assets in any conflict are only part of the picture. Even with Russian support and extra French soldiers, NATO is unlikely to win in Afghanistan until security is backed by improved governance and across-the-board reconstruction benefits to Afghanis. Ditto Iraq, as the surge’s tribal and geographical limits emerged last week, highlighting political enmities temporarily-masked by the troop increase and Sunni militia collaboration with the US.

Conversely, the Basra blow-up shows that the military-security aspect cannot be overlooked. Britain provided the main western force in Basra, but is currently downsizing, and leaving the field to Shi’ite militias. Much like the recalcitrant NATO contingents in Afghanistan, the UK may have to reassess its slackening commitment to southern Iraq. If it does, then it will likely up the pressure on Germany, Italy et al to do more in Afghanistan.

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