WASHINGTON When NATO took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan last summer, there were high hopes for multiple payoffs for the alliance.
An effective NATO performance could smooth over the American-European split caused by the Iraq war and, perhaps more importantly, create the security environment the Afghans urgently need to hold national elections.
Now, almost a year since NATO took on the task, there is widespread disillusionment with its performance, contributing to doubts about Afghanistan's future stability.
While accusing NATO of dithering, Bush administration officials say the allies still have time to help ensure a successful presidential election in October.
Parliamentary elections, due to have been held simultaneously, have been put off until spring.
John Hulsman, a European analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says halfhearted allied efforts in Afghanistan is deepening American suspicions about NATO's utility.
''Our interests are not the same. We have to stop pretending that they are,'' he says.
Officially, the alliance takes a different view. A communique issued at the NATO summit in Turkey two weeks ago said, ''Contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan is NATO's key priority.
''NATO's leadership of the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force demonstrates the readiness of the North Atlantic Council to decide to launch operations to ensure our common security.''
Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations says NATO's commitment in Afghanistan has yielded little thus far.
While helping to stabilize Kabul, he says, ''most of rest of country is the wild, wild west, including the south and east.''
Bush administration officials say such comments fail to recognize that the deployment to Afghanistan is a bold departure for an alliance that had never ventured beyond Europe's borders.
At Istanbul, the allies committed themselves to increase troop levels from 6,500 to 10,000. Some of the new forces will be stationed outside the country for use only in an emergency.
The NATO troops serve apart from the 20,000 U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, which focus on tracking down remnants of al-Qaida and the deposed Taliban government, mostly in the border area with Pakistan.
These militant groups would benefit from any failure of democracy in Afghanistan to take root. Other anti-democratic forces also would profit, including the violent warlord-led militias that control much of the countryside.
The International Crisis Group, which offers analyses on a host of trouble spots, said in a June report on Afghanistan: ''Security affects everything from elections to reconstruction to women's rights to drugs to the disarmament and demobilization of warlords.''
Afghan President Hamid Karzai made warlord disarmament a top priority earlier this year but has made almost no headway.
At the Istanbul summit two weeks ago, Karzai implored the Europeans to take Afghanistan more seriously.
''Please hurry,'' he said. ''Provide the Afghan men and women with a chance to vote freely without fear, without coercion.''
NATO has agreed to branch out beyond Kabul to the west and north of Afghanistan, setting up civilian-military teams designed to help the Karzai government extend its authority and to create a secure environment, among other goals.
NATO has had the authority to expand operations beyond Kabul since last October but the only such deployment has been the dispatch of a German unit to the northeastern city of Kunduz, considered a relatively safe area.
Germany, with 1,909 troops in Afghanistan, and Canada, with 1,576, are by far the most generous of the NATO contributors. France ranks next with 565. The remaining 23 NATO countries, plus 11 outside NATO, have pitched in about 2,500 combined.
To the extent that Afghanistan is shortchanged, many Europeans say the situation would be less uncertain if the United States had redoubled its efforts there and not depleted its resources on what they regard as a highly questionable war in Iraq.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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