12 February 2007

Opportunity cost

Newspapers only have so much space and broadcasters only have so much time and, if they expend it on chasing after 15-year-old David Cameron's drug using habits, neither time nor space are available for other, more weighty issues. That is the so-called "opportunity cost". By focusing on one subject, you lose the opportunity to deal with another.

Despite the obsession with young Cameron and all things trivial, however, I fully expected at least the heavyweight end of the Sunday media to devote some time to the Nato ministerial meeting in Seville, which has been entirely ignored by the dailies. That used to be something of a speciality of the Sundays – sweeping up after the dailies, addressing some of the issues they had missed.

However, this was not to be, despite the ominous signs of trouble emanating from Afghanistan and the failure, once again, of Nato ministers to agree more troops for the region.

Nor, I suspect, are we going to see much coverage of the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, where nearly 300 security experts from 45 countries were yesterday addressed by US defense secretary Robert M. Gates. He urged Nato allies to back up their commitments to the mission in Afghanistan with money and forces, telling the gathering: "NATO is not a paper membership or a social club or a talk shop. It is a military alliance, one with very serious real-world obligations."

This was after a more emollient address on the Saturday by Nato SecGen Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. He expressed the view that the back of the insurgency in Afghanistan would be "broken" and that the country would be on the road to a long-term peace by 2009.

Gates, though, skipped the diplomacy and optimism. “NATO members are divided into two groups,” he said, those "who do all they can to fulfill collective commitments and those who do not." "Going forward, it is vitally important that the success Afghanistan has achieved not be allowed to slip away through neglect or lack of political will or resolve," he added.

The overall success of the alliance and, in particular, the success of the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan was dependent upon alliance members honouring their commitments. "An alliance consisting of the world's most prosperous industrialized nations, with over 2 million people in uniform - not even counting the American military - should be able to generate the manpower and materiel needed to get the job done in Afghanistan, a mission in which there is virtually no dispute over its justness, necessity, or international legitimacy," Gates said. "Our failure to do so would be a mark of shame."

Gates's views were echoed by Afghan national security adviser, Zalmai Rassoul, who told the same meeting that his country was facing a resurgent Taliban and an influx of foreign fighters. "While we have come far, we are standing at a crossroads in 2007 between moving forward along a democratic path and letting it slip from our grasp," said Rassoul.

US Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock added to the refrain, telling reporters before the meeting that: "you must clear, you must hold, you must build." For that, it would take more troops to conduct the combination of security and stability operations to end fighting in Afghanistan. Until then, he said, fighting will continue, since the Taleban has an enormous recruiting ground for foot soldiers among the 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, he said. Most of these refugees have no ideological ties, he said. They become Taliban soldiers to earn a wage to live.

Star of the show though was Senator John McCain, a Republican contender for the White House in 2008. He cut to the chase, chastising "Europe" for failing to supply the troops and money to win in Afghanistan, declaring that Nato's future was at stake.

Nato allies should to move beyond the "false debate" over security and development priorities in Afghanistan - a dispute that dominated the Nato ministers' meeting earlier this week. Instead, Europe should follow Washington's lead and put more forces and resources into the war effort, he said, declaring:

Military recommitment must begin with NATO countries providing an adequate number of troops for the fight … Yet the international community still falls far short in meeting its prior pledges and in committing the resources Afghanistan needs to avoid failure.
All this comes at a time when we hear that the Taleban have stepped up attacks in southern Afghanistan in recent days in what seems to be the opening of the fighting season.

Furthermore, they are continuing to reinforce Musa Qala. More than 1,500 villagers have fled the town in anticipation of renewed fighting, while more than 300 fighters have taken their place.

Meanwhile, the governor of Afghanistan's southern province of Helmand, Assadullah Wafa, also said yesterday hundreds of foreign Al Qaeda fighters had infiltrated his province and were behind regular attacks there. As many as 700 Al Qaeda terrorists had come to Sangeen and Kajaki districts from Waziristan (in Pakistan), he said, claiming they were mostly Chechen fighters, Chinese, Uzbeks and Pakistanis.

At least, though, German soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force seem to be on the case. They gave a demonstration of their prowess to the media at the German military base in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday last (pictured). At least they have some nice kit … all we need now is the determination to fight, from the German government and the other Nato allies.

Do not hold your breath, and do not expect the media even to notice as the situation goes down the pan – until, that is, we start seeing the body bags.