Sunday, February 28, 2010

Does NATO belong in Afghanistan?

An article by Fred Kaplan, on Slate, in which he concludes:

If some European nations don't want to fight, leave them alone. This war is not about the future of NATO, and the future of NATO is not bound up in this war. We shouldn't let disagreements over Afghanistan cause the fissure of an alliance that's still valuable in its own right.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ronald Asmus: Battle to hold sway in 'contested zone' on EU's doorstep

WHAT is the most important source of disagreement today between Russia and the West?
It is not the issues most often in the news – Iran or Afghanistan. It is Europe's contested neighbourhood – the future of those countries between the eastern border of Nato and the European Union and the western border of Russia. While the West and Russia still talk the talk of co-operative security in Europe, geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in these regions.

Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands, in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that labels Nato a threat and justifies the right to intervene in these countries. While packaged in smooth diplo-speak, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev's new proposal for European security has the less-than-hidden goal of stopping and rolling back western influence.

Rather than moving into the 21st century, Russia seems determined to revert to 19th-century strategic thinking. With the Obama administration focused on Afghanistan and Iran, the Kremlin hopes that a West in need of its co-operation will acquiesce in its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a little war, but one that raised big questions. It was not fought over the future status of Georgia's Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (though that source of conflict was a real one). Instead, the war's root cause was Georgia's desire to align itself with the West and Russia's determination to stop it.

Many diplomats would prefer to forget the Russo-Georgian war or sweep it under the rug. But none of the underlying tensions is resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia's desire to go West.

In late January, the Obama administration issued its first unequivocal reaffirmation of the strategy of democratic enlargement that has guided western thinking since the collapse of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. Speaking in Paris, secretary of state Hillary Clinton reminded us that Nato and EU enlargement had created an unprecedented degree of stability and security in the eastern half of the continent, that Russia, too, had benefited from this stability, and that it was critical Europe's doors remained open to further enlargement.

Clinton went on to reject as unnecessary Medvedev's call to re-make current European security arrangements. Nato has also finally started engaging in defence planning and other forms of strategic reassurance for its allies in Central and Eastern Europe, which are unsettled by Russia's new assertiveness.

But what about those countries in between – countries like Ukraine and Georgia and the southern Caucasus? Ukraine has just elected as its president Viktor Yanukovich, who is unlikely to pursue a Nato integration agenda, and if he follows through on his commitment to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, EU membership would be precluded. But that does not mean tensions with Russia will automatically disappear.

Yanukovich's victory notwithstanding, Ukraine is a country that is becoming more European and gradually moving out of Russia's orbit in its own chaotic way. Regardless of whether Georgians like or dislike their president Mikhail Saakashvilli, they want to go West, too. So Russia's attempts to bring these countries to heel are likely to continue and remain a bone of contention and conflict.

And what is western policy? In reality, the West today no longer has a grand strategy toward the East. The moral and strategic vision of the 1990s has exhausted itself and come to a grinding halt after the shock of the Russo-Georgian war and the recent Ukrainian election.

It is time for the West to openly debate what its strategy is – and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected "spheres of influence", because Europe's bloody history taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict.

If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries, and to back it up with a real strategy. We need to be clear that Moscow has a right to security, but that it does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbours.

As the United States and Russia close in on a new arms-control treaty, it is time to face the question of how we deal with Europe's contested neighbourhood.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pakistan's push for new role in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's punishing war is entering a new phase and Pakistan has made it clear it can and must play a leading role.

The sudden significant capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second in charge in the Taliban hierarchy, comes at a crucial point.
Talk of negotiation is now taking centre stage, a strategy in parallel to a powerful military assault against Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
"There has been a change in Pakistan's attitude," said Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively about the close links between Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, and Taliban leaders.
"Pakistan now wants to dominate any kind of dialogue that takes place."
Mullah Baradar, reported to have been picked up by Pakistani and US intelligence agents in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, may have become too independent.
“ America is history, Karzai is history, the Taliban are the future ” Former ISI head Gen Hamid Gul
Sources in Kabul say he and his envoys have been involved in secret talks with the Afghan president in Kabul, his representatives in southern Afghanistan and outside the country.
One senior Afghan official who, like others, is not commenting publicly for now, said: "This may be good for public opinion but, for us, it can have a negative impact.
"It was easier for us to talk to him."
A Western source involved in the process expressed frustration this channel was now being exposed and, for the moment, stopped.
More arrests have now been reported including two Taliban "shadow governors" who reported to Mullah Baradar.
Reports from Kandahar last month speculated that Mullah Baradar would soon be arrested because of growing tensions with Mullah Omar.
The two men have been close confidants. The Taliban leader had appointed him as one of his two main deputies after the movement was ousted from power in 2001.
Mullah Baradar rose to become the key military commander as Mullah Omar found it increasingly difficult to operate in the open.
"Pakistan has accomplished two objectives," remarked Lt Col Tony Shaffer, who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2003, and is now at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington.
"They've shown us in the West they're willing to co-operate and they've taken out someone they didn't control."
Pakistan has always denied senior Taliban leaders are living on its soil, saying they go back and forth across the porous border with Afghanistan.
Key asset
Unlike the Bush administration, Barack Obama's team has been urging Pakistan, privately and publicly, to take action against the Taliban leadership and their sanctuaries in the tribal areas, as well as in cities like Quetta and Karachi.
Since 2001 the Pakistan military has moved against al-Qaeda and more recently, Pakistani Taliban leaders. But it's long made it clear it won't move against the Afghan Taliban and other powerful Afghan commanders linked to the insurgency.
Islamabad has regarded its long-standing Taliban connections as a key asset in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Now that the Afghan government and its Nato allies have made reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters - and reconciliation with more senior commanders - a key priority, Pakistan wants to play a role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Pakistan's army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, has been indicating their readiness.
Sphere of influence
In a rare press briefing in February, he made it clear "we have opened all doors" to co-operation with Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
But he also asserted "our strategic paradigm has to be realised". For Pakistan, this means a friendly Afghanistan that is part of its sphere of influence - and where India, still regarded as a threat, plays no major role.
Washington seems to accept Pakistan can be a broker.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, on a visit to Kabul, told BBC's Persian TV: "Pakistan's ISI can play a role in negotiations and I support that role.
"Pakistan has an influence in this area and has a legitimate security interest."
The former ISI head, retired Gen Hamid Gul, talked about this relationship with his trademark bluntness. Speaking to me in an interview on the BBC's Newshour programme, he said: "America is history, Karzai is history, the Taliban are the future."
Pakistan, he warned, "would be unwise to cut all contacts and goodwill with the future leaders of Afghanistan".
A growing role for Islamabad causes unease in Kabul. President Karzai and key members of his team have repeatedly criticised the role of the ISI in providing sanctuary to Taliban leaders.
The president has made it clear he wants any reconciliation to be an Afghan-led and controlled process.
There's been no official announcement from Kabul yet to Mullah Baradar's capture.
A few years ago, Kabul opened contacts with another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, who had also fallen out with Mullah Omar, only to have Pakistan capture him in early 2008. At the time, a senior Afghan intelligence official expressed anger and dismay.
Dutch journalist Bette Dam, author of a recent book on Hamid Karzai, has written of years of contacts between the president and Mullah Baradar, who are both from the Popalzai tribe.
Mullah Baradar is said to have come to the rescue of Hamid Karzai when he was threatened by Taliban fighters in the southern province of Uruzgan after the 9/11 attacks.
On her most recent visit to Uruzgan in December, Ms Dam said that she had been informed that Mullah Baradar made a visit to Kabul last year.
Afghans in the province - the birthplace of Mullah Baradar - also spoke of "how powerful and increasingly independent he had become in the Taliban movement, establishing his own committees and charities, and operating though his own tribal networks".
The question now is what impact will his arrest have on any future negotiations with the Taliban and on Pakistan's role in this process.
Biggest blow
Islamabad is being hailed in Washington for its co-operation with the US.
For the Americans, this success comes only weeks after the CIA suffered its biggest blow in decades. It lost seven operatives when a double agent detonated a suicide vest at their base in the eastern province of Khost.
But many key details of this latest operation are still unclear. Reports are now emerging that Mullah Baradar may have been detained earlier than the dates cited in the original story in the New York Times.
It's also still not clear how much involvement US intelligence had in the raid and how much access they have to this valuable source, who has an enormous store of knowledge about the movement, including their contacts with the ISI.
One Western source in Kabul said that the Americans were exaggerating the level of co-operation.
US intelligence officer Col Shaffer argues that what happens next is of key importance.
"We should watch very closely what happens," he remarked.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Moscow’s CSTO Olive Branch to NATO

One year after the “reset” policy was announced by the Obama administration, aimed at improving relations with Russia, the negative characterization of NATO continues to feature prominently in the thinking and statements of senior Russian officials. During a recent interview with the Tajik weekly newspaper Vecherny Dushanbe, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), confirmed that the organization has no official contact with the Alliance. “We have offered interaction many times, in particular, on such pressing problems as Afghan drug trafficking and terrorism. Hopefully, the new administration of the Alliance will change this attitude toward NATO-CSTO contacts,” Bordyuzha said. He juxtaposed this with the development of closer ties between the CSTO, UN and OSCE in relation to counter-terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime (Interfax, February 4).

Bordyuzha advocates multilateral cooperation with NATO in countering terrorism and combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan. In his view, such cooperation might prove possible, but it largely depends on the political willingness within the Alliance to pursue closer relations with the CSTO. He points to the leaders of the CSTO being “gravely concerned” over the situation in Afghanistan, which he characterizes as “extremely critical and explosive and is catastrophically deteriorating,” which impacts on the security situation in Central Asia (ITAR-TASS, February 4).

Such political frustration is becoming sharper in the context of what Moscow views as its “successful” activation of the CSTO, ranging from forming the Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) to its attempts to develop peace support capabilities within the organization and extend into other areas such as migration. Yet, Tashkent refuses to participate in the new force, and Moscow’s much hailed effort to open an additional “CSTO” base in southern Kyrgyzstan has been put on the backburner. While making every effort to portray the CSTO as a multilateral organization that is rooted in principles such as consensus, Moscow is aware that by pressing too hard on enhancing its military footprint in the region, it risks an open split with Tashkent (Interfax, January 27).

Other CSTO members may want closer relations with NATO, but are guided and influenced in their security thinking by Moscow. Bordyuzha believes that other members of the CSTO should follow the eagerness and compliance demonstrated by Kazakhstan, which has become the first Central Asian state to ratify the agreement on establishing the CORF. “It is symbolic that Kazakhstan, which initiated and hosted the signing of the agreement at the informal meeting of CSTO presidents in December 2008, was the first member country of the organization to ratify it,” Bordyuzha explained. These arguments appear unconvincing in Tashkent (Interfax, February 4).

On January 29, interior ministry officials from the CSTO member states agreed to conduct joint operations later this year that will target illegal migration and human trafficking. Following the formulation of a concept aimed at tackling illegal migration on a collective basis up to 2012, Illegal Immigrant 2010 is intended to demonstrate the seriousness the CSTO attaches to the issue. The coordinating council on illegal migration was formed in October 2007, and was designed to facilitate and improve the fight against the phenomenon and related crimes (ITAR-TASS, January 29).

On February 8, Bordyuzha said that the new Russian military doctrine, signed by President Dmitry Medvedev three days earlier, underscored the importance that Moscow attaches to the CSTO. The military doctrine, in his view, reaffirms Moscow’s readiness to come to the aid of any CSTO member subjected to a military attack. “The doctrine also envisages Russia’s participation in all components of the CSTO collective security system: the CORF and peacekeeping forces,” Bordyuzha said (ITAR-TASS, February 8).

While officials such as Bordyuzha present an image of Moscow desperately seeking stronger relations with the Alliance, NATO officials are regularly subjected to the erratic outbursts of the Russian Ambassador Dmitry Ragozin. His modus operandi is to attend meetings, then call a press conference predicated on telling journalists how effectively he corrected NATO officials. Ragozin’s latest outburst followed the announcement on February 5 that Romania will begin hosting US Ballistic Missile Defense interceptors in 2015. Commenting on US and Romanian officials going out of their way to assure Moscow that the interceptors posed no threat to Russia, Ragozin diagnosed: “It seems to be in line with Freud’s theory –it means they have some thoughts that the system could be targeted against Russia, otherwise why would they dissuade us about something we never asked about?” (Interfax, February 6).

Nevertheless, despite the various appeals for the Alliance to enter cooperative arrangements with the CSTO, it is politically difficult to disassociate the Moscow-led organization with Medvedev’s foreign policy aspirations for the West to recognize that Russia has a “sphere of privileged interests,” which predisposes some members of NATO to caution against such seemingly positive developments. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing on February 2, on the “Current and Projected Threats to the United States,” during which Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence gave testimony. While noting an improvement in US-Russian relations, Blair said:

“I remain concerned, however, that Russia looks at relations with its neighbors in the former Soviet space –an area characterized by President Medvedev as Russia’s “zone of privileged interests”– largely in zero-sum terms, vis-a-vis the United States, potentially undermining the US-Russian bilateral relationship. Moscow, moreover, has made it clear it expects to be consulted closely on missile defense plans and other European security issues” (

In reality, therefore, the CSTO remains a comparatively young organization, regarded even by its members as Moscow-dominated, which lends credibility to suspicions beyond the region that it serves predominantly as a foreign policy tool for Russia. In this context, while sharing concerns notably over Iran and Afghanistan, as well as transnational security threats, the Alliance prefers to deal with Russia directly. While its political leadership clings to neo-colonial aspirations, characterized as Russia’s aim to become a regional superpower, packaged as a “sphere of privileged interests,” and engage in the zero-sum game there can be little practical possibility that a new relationship will emerge anytime soon between NATO and the CSTO.

Allied Command Transformation on facebook

Allied Command Transformation has launched its facebook page, where you could get information on ACT role and activities.

Located in Norfolk, Virginia, Allied Command Transformation is the only NATO Headquarters located outside Europe and provides an essential corner stone of the transatlantic link.
ACT is NATO leading agent for change: establishing a culture of proactive cahnge in order to maintain the Alliance pre-eminet military effectiveness witihin a comprehensive approach. ACT focuses on development NATO's interoperability standards for Command and Control and training that enable national forces to effectively operate together in a collective manner.
Additionally ACT works closely with Nations, and coordinates the work of NATO Centres of Excellence, to minimize duplication of Alliance capability development. ACT is NATO’s honest broker for coordinating innovation and the implementation of Capability improvements.ACT facilitates the exchange of best practices, lessons learned and capability development efforts.

ACT and National Defense University are organizing the last NATO Seminar on the Strategic Concept.

On facebook group, ACT staff will publish the Conference outcomes!

Monday, February 15, 2010

NATO DAY in Velletri (Rome)

More than 500 High School students participated on Monday February 15th to a conference on NATO's role in XXI Century. The Conference was organized in Velletri (Rome) at Cesare Battisti High School by the Italian Atlantic Committee.
Students were coming from all Velletri district's High School. A group of Carabinieri cadets was attending as well.
The conference was opened by Antonietta Dal Borgo who introducted the topic with a video that resumed NATO's history and milestone (from the signing on the Treaty to the ISAF mission). The video was made by Italian Parliament, with support of RAI and Italian Atlantic Committee, by collecting original videos and audios from NATO and Italian archives.
Mr. Fabrizio Luciolli, Secretary General of the Italian Atlantic Committee, and Maj. Gen. Giovanni Marizza, former Deputy Commander of Multinational Corps in Iraq addressed the audience. They elaborated on NATO's role in XXI century security scenario and addressed the most important issues for today's Alliance. They explained why NATO's role is fundamental in guaranteeing peace and security in the globalized world and touched upon the current debate on the new Strategic Concept.
Col. Ilir Balliu, Albanian Defense Attache in Italy participated as well, and brought his view on NATO enlargment and its importance for Albania.
A lively Q&A session followed their presentations.
It was the second Conference that the Italian Atlantic Committee organized in Velletri, following May 2008's first meeting.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

French arms sales to Russia The cruel sea

NATO allies worry about France’s decision to sell big warships to Russia.

CHAMPAGNE and other French products may soon face declining sales in Tallinn, Tbilisi and places in between. The possible sale by France to Russia of up to four Mistral-class assault ships, at up to $750m each, is stoking fear and mistrust. The deal, agreed on “in principle” by France, could be formalised during a visit to Paris next month by Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev. The ships would enter service in 2015.

The deal highlights Russia’s increasing military ambitions and the decay of its own arms industry. Once one of the world’s top naval powers, Russia is now struggling to complete even the repair of an aircraft-carrier destined for India, let alone to build new ships from scratch. The Mistral is a mighty, 199-metre-long vessel that carries tanks and helicopters, and can conduct and manage amphibious landings. Kaarel Kaas, of the International Centre for Defence Studies, a think-tank in Tallinn, says that such ships would “transform the power balance” on Russia’s borders.

One region affected is the Baltic, where Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO’s most vulnerable members, are still waiting to see concrete plans for the alliance to defend them in a crisis. The other is the Black Sea. The Mistrals could matter in any conflict over Crimea in Ukraine, where Russia is due to give up a naval base in 2017. Russia’s naval chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, says that with such ships Russia would have won the 2008 war against Georgia “in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours”.

But if Russia wants to attack Georgia again, it can do so without Mistrals. And to make the new ships usable, Russia will need to buy or build flotillas of escort vessels, as well as advanced (and expensive) weapons and electronic systems. Even then, the Russian navy would be no match for NATO’s navies. Those who remember the backstage help that France gave Britain in trying to counter the French-made Exocet missiles used by Argentina during the Falklands war in 1982 may wonder how effective the Mistrals would be in any war that France disapproved of.

The sale was first mooted in November when Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, visited France. Georgia has complained publicly, as have some Baltic officials. Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, had a “good and thorough exchange of views” (ie, a disagreement) this week with his French counterpart, Hervé Morin, but this may be just a blip in the improving relations between France and America. The Pentagon is planning manoeuvres in the Baltic later this year. It may now beef them up.

Some critics worry more about the political balance than the military one. Some compare the Mistral deal to Nord Stream, a controversial planned Russian-German gas pipeline. Running along the bed of the Baltic Sea, it would circumvent troublesome transit countries in eastern Europe. But its real importance is that it provides Russia with a tool to peddle influence in European countries.

The Saint-Nazaire shipyard, which builds the Mistral class, is in trouble. It has won only one order, from the French navy, in the past three years; 350 workers there are being asked to quit. The French state recently bought a third of the shipyard company to save jobs and know-how.

Haggling over the Mistral orders (one will be built in France, the others probably in Russia) could thus give the Kremlin bargaining clout in the coming years. An early sign of that, cynics say, is a decision to boot a Georgian-run Russian-language television channel off France’s Eutelsat satellite. France pooh-poohs the ex-communist countries’ protests as paranoia. Russia cannot be treated both as a NATO ally and as an enemy, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy said this week. Yet that is how Russia seems to see things. Its new military doctrine paints NATO, and particularly its enlargement, as the biggest threat to Russia. The ex-communist states know that protesting against a done deal will only make them look weak and paranoid. Still, they don’t like it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

NATO Strategic Concept to be discussed in Moscow

From 9th to 12th February 2010, the Group of Experts on the NATO Strategic Concept will visit Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Federation. As part of the reflection period, the group, under the leadership of Dr. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, will participate in discussions with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of the National Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev and will meet with the members of the Duma, Lower House of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation.

The Group of Experts will use these meetings as an opportunity to listen, gather ideas and hear various points of view.

In informal exchanges, members of the group will also engage with leading Russian security experts.

On Thursday, 11th February, Dr. Albright will deliver remarks at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations followed by a discussion with students and guests. The event will be open to the media.

In 2009, the NATO Secretary General appointed a group of 12 experts to facilitate the reflection and consultation phase in the preparation of the new strategic concept. The group represents a broad spectrum of large and small NATO members and offers a balanced combination of insiders and outsiders, including from the private sector, think tanks and the academic communityDr.Albright chairs the group with Mr. Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO in Royal Dutch Shell, as vice-chair.

Hello everybody,

Here is an interesting article:

NATO’s Response Force (NRF) – a 25,000-strong rapid reaction force for military high end operations far beyond the Alliance’s borders – was launched in November 2002. It is a project that NATO is still struggling to implement. Announcements that the force would be fully operational proved to be premature and many of the intended objectives still have to be met. Moreover, the force has never been deployed in a real military operation, despite the fact that NATO is fighting a war in Afghanistan – definitely a “high end operation”. Where does the NRF concept stand today? And what are the stumbling blocks preventing the efficient use of NATO’s crisis reaction force? What future can the NRF have? These are some of the questions addressed in the new analysis by the NATO Defense College Research Division.

All the best,
Antti Talonen

Friday, February 5, 2010

McChrystal says stage set for ‘real progress’ in Afghanistan effort

In Istanbul the senior commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan offered a guarded but unexpectedly upbeat assessment of the war effort yesterday, saying that while the situation remained dangerous it was no longer deteriorating, and that the stage was set for “real progress.’’

The commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, noted that last summer he believed security in Afghanistan was at risk of significant decline, but that he felt differently now. “I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner,’’ he cautioned. “So I’m saying that the situation is serious but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we’ll make real progress in 2010.’’

Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a hotel in southern Afghanistan yesterday, killing at least six people and wounding nearly two dozen, officials said.

The blast in Kandahar happened as NATO and Afghan forces prepare for a joint offensive against Taliban militants in the neighboring province of Helmand in a major bid to break their stranglehold on the south.

McChrystal’s assessment of the war effort came as NATO officials gathered here for a session in which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was expected to press allies for contributions of several thousand additional trainers to expand and improve the Afghan Army and police forces.

Although US officials have expressed broad satisfaction with the number of combat troops entering the fight - the bulk, of course, coming from the additional American troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama - the mission to teach Afghan security forces and then deploy alongside them remains about 4,000 personnel short.

McChrystal said the highly anticipated offensive to begin soon in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province would be a significant example of the improved partnership between foreign and Afghan security forces. Helmand is a focus of insurgent activity and the narcotics trade, and is viewed as a center of gravity in the allied counterinsurgency strategy because of its fertile river valley and significant population centers.

He said the decision to discuss the operation openly was a way of telling the people of Afghanistan of their government’s efforts to expand security where they live - and to tell the insurgents and narcotics traffickers “that it’s about to change.’’

Meanwhile, NATO acknowledged yesterday that it lacked almost half the trainers it had promised to help build up the army and police in Afghanistan.

Training is a key strategy of the Obama administration in helping Afghan authorities take eventual responsibility for their own security and thereby allow forces under US and NATO command to withdraw.

The failure to send all the trainers promised in October underscores the difficulty the US-led military coalition faces in trying to get Europe to live up to its commitments, even though Europe favors a greater emphasis on training and development aid.

Russia and Serbia Base camps Rumours of a Russian base in Serbia reflect Balkan hysteria, not reality

EVERYONE in the Balkans loves a good conspiracy theory, especially one that involves energy pipelines and military bases. According to some people with a bent against Serbia and Russia, the Russians are plotting to create a thinly-disguised military base in Serbia. That would be the Kremlin’s first new European base since the end of the Warsaw Pact, and could seem a response to NATO’s expansion in the region. Every country around Serbia is either in NATO or wants to be.

The story of the Russian base started in October when Dmitry Medvedev was visiting Belgrade. It was announced then that a new joint centre for emergency co-ordination would be created in the Serbian town of Nis. The site was an all-but-unused airport, named after Constantine the Great (the Roman emperor who was born there). The Russian partner will be the emergency ministry, a powerful semi-military outfit whose activities include disaster relief but also errand-running for Russia’s security services. The ministry has long played a role in Serbia, for example in mine-clearing.

But speculation has mounted that the Nis facilities could be used for spying or even turned to military use, should the need arise. What has most excited the conspiracy theorists is that Nis is close to the point where a controversial planned gas pipeline, South Stream, will cross Serbian territory. The pipeline is a joint venture between Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, and Italy’s energy company, Eni. The route crosses the Black Sea, enabling Russia to bypass Ukraine, seen as a troublesome transit country, and deliver gas direct to the Balkans, central Europe and Italy.

Serbia’s emergency-planning chief in the interior ministry, Predrag Maric, firmly denies any notion that Russia is opening a military facility by stealth. Nis will not be a military base, he insists, pointing out that his ministry and the Russians have invited no fewer than 11 countries from the region to a conference in Belgrade this month to discuss their part in the establishment of the logistics and training facility in Nis.

The theories circulating among bloggers and others about Russian intentions echo earlier ones about outsiders’ geopolitical goals in the region. Many believe that it was oil, not worries about Serbian brutality in Kosovo, that lay behind NATO’s bombing of Serbia (including Nis airport) in 1999. After the war the Americans built Camp Bondsteel, a base capable of housing 7,000 men, in Kosovo. Conspiracy theorists said the real purpose of the camp was to safeguard the planned AMBO oil pipeline that aimed to pump Russian and Caspian oil from across Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania.

Yet more than 16 years after it was first mooted, the AMBO pipeline remains only a line on the map. Bondsteel has no runway. And there are only 1,400 American troops left in Kosovo. When the total number of NATO-led troops in Kosovo drops from its current 10,000 to the planned 2,300 Camp Bondsteel may close for good.

Nis airport and Bondsteel are easy to spot on Google Earth. Harder to find is a real military base, opened last November by the Serb authorities and often dubbed the Serbian Bondsteel. It lies close to Kosovo in the Bujanovac area of south Serbia, home to many ethnic Albanians. Their leaders complain loudly about the militarisation of the region. Yet the Serbian base can house only 1,000 men. “I’m not losing any sleep over it,” says a senior NATO official. He says he is aware of the possible Russian presence in Nis but is unworried by its implications. Meanwhile Windjet, an Italian low-cost airline, has just started flights to Constantine the Great airport.