As Allies Leave Afghanistan, U.S. Role Evolves

A German soldier wears as badge with his blood type as he gets prepared to depart on a multi-day patrol in Kunduz, Afghanistan on May 14, 2010.   In northern Afghanistan, incoming U.S. troops are officially under German command.
A German soldier wears as badge with his blood type as he gets prepared to depart on a multi-day patrol in Kunduz, Afghanistan on May 14, 2010. In northern Afghanistan, incoming U.S. troops are officially under German command. Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the continuing violence in Afghanistan, the shape of the NATO alliance is changing. As troops from several countries depart, the number of U.S. forces continues to grow. They are finding new ways to work with the NATO counterparts that remain.

At the beginning of August, Dutch troops left the restive province of Uruzgan, and Canadian soldiers appear set to depart next year. At the same time, the U.S. forces surging into Afghanistan are finding new ways to work with their NATO counterparts.

In Kunduz, German soldiers are notionally in command of the incoming American surge.

About 1,800 Dutch soldiers left Uruzgan province last week after a four-year mission. By the end of their time in Uruzgan, criticism of the Dutch practice of restrained use of force had turned to admiration from the U.S. military proponents of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes winning over the population to defeat the Taliban.

The Dutch public was not convinced, and when the prime minister attempted to extend the troops' commitment last winter, his government fell.

"If you ask the soldiers, everybody wants to stay here to ... finish the job," says Dutch Brig. Gen. Leo Beulen. "But it's also clear that if politics calls us home, we go home. There's no question about it."

Beulen is one of a few Dutch nationals who will stay on as part of the NATO staff in Kabul. He says that American troops will fill in the gap, joining Australian soldiers who will remain in Uruzgan.

Reconciling The Rules Of Engagement

That's a pattern across Afghanistan, as some 30,000 additional Americans have arrived. In the south, Americans are relieving British troops who have spent five bloody summers in Helmand province. The same goes for Kandahar where the Canadians are expected to keep to their government's deadline to leave next year.

But dozens of nations still have troops in Afghanistan, and in some key areas they work differently from the Americans -- issues as important as when to shoot and when not to. Beulen says this has not been a problem.

"The set of rules of engagement are quite clear and defined, so there is no difference between the rules of engagement. But some countries have national caveats on some of the rules of engagement, which are always more strict than the general rules of engagement," he says.

That may not be the case for long. Each country's specific rules about when and how to engage are classified, but the issue has been controversial of late, with some American troops complaining that they were being so restricted that they couldn't return fire when under attack.

With troops now integrating in more combat situations, Gen. David Petraeus, the new NATO commander, issued a clarification Sunday through his NATO spokesman, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, that the rules of engagement must be harmonized.

"This point is intended to ensure commanders apply the guidance consistently across the force, recusing the possibility that an overly cautious commander could hinder their troops' ability to defend themselves," he said.

Hustling To Match U.S. Standards

And there have been other adjustments to make. The NATO standard maximum time for getting a medical evacuation helicopter to wounded soldiers is 90 minutes -- the U.S. military standard is just one hour.

As American reinforcements have deployed, some of the other NATO partners have been hustling to match that standard. Maj. Parker Frawley, of the U.S. Army's 4th combat aviation brigade in Mazar-e-Sharif, described how the Norwegian medevac team in nearby Maimana moved its barracks closer to the airstrip and cut its preparation time in half.

"Once they learned we were coming out to Maimana, the Norwegians have shortened their notice-to-move time down to 15 minutes to match our standards, so they could truly team with our medevac guys," Frawley says.

But the integration is not without its pitfalls. Speaking informally, U.S. military officers can be harshly critical of many of the NATO partners in Afghanistan -- for example, in the north, where the Taliban presence has grown rapidly over the past five years. American soldiers in that area are officially under German command, but the difference in resources is stark -- the Americans bring many more helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles to the fight.

Still, the cooperation has its lighter moments. In a recent nighttime engagement in Kunduz, a German officer ordered his cannons to shoot illumination rounds over the heads of American troops to light their way. The Americans joked afterward that it was the first time a German had fired artillery in their direction since World War II. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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