U.S. unlikely to seek more NATO forces in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2009 

WASHINGTON — With America's allies likely to rebuff requests to send more combat troops to Afghanistan, many Pentagon officials want President Barack Obama to alter U.S. policy and seek NATO help only in other areas such as police training and support for democratization, defense officials said.

Obama called for more NATO combat troops while he was campaigning for the presidency. But the officials said that NATO allies are unlikely to defy the majorities of their citizens who are opposed to deeper involvement in the war, and he'd squander political capital on an almost certainly futile bid to convince them otherwise.

"The problem is that all politics is local. No constituents in those countries want to be there anymore," a U.S. defense official told McClatchy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly.

Afghanistan was a major topic Wednesday of Obama's first meeting in the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We're going to have some difficult decisions that we're going to have to make" on Afghanistan, Obama said later.

The president has pledged to refocus the fight against terrorism from Iraq to Afghanistan and endorsed a request by senior U.S. commanders to increase the 30,000-strong U.S. contingent by another 30,000 troops. Most would be sent to southern Afghanistan.

Many U.S. military officials have become disillusioned with the growing reluctance of NATO allies to allow their forces to engage in major combat operations in the Taliban strongholds of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Some American officers contemptuously refer to the 30,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Saw Americans Fight."

ISAF comprises some 30,000 troops from the 26 NATO members and 15 other countries. The 19,000-strong U.S. contingent is by far the largest. A separate 17,000-strong U.S. force concentrates on counter-terrorism operations.

During his campaign, Obama made a drive for more NATO troops a key plank of his plan for ending the war in Afghanistan, which last year saw its worst violence since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

"We haven't given up yet (on seeking more allied combat forces), but there is a certain realization that there is only so much water you can squeeze from that stone," said a second U.S. defense official, who asked not to be further identified to avoid speaking ahead of the new administration.

The U.S. defense officials said there are critical roles that ISAF should continue playing, such as providing security in northern and western areas where the Taliban have little support, training Afghan security forces and promoting reconstruction

"We recognize the limitations of what they can provide and need to make the maximum within those parameters," said a senior U.S. military officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

Obama is awaiting recommendations for a new Afghanistan strategy from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

The administration must decide whether to forgo requests for more NATO combat forces as part of its new strategy by the 26-nation alliance's annual summit, which is to be co-hosted by Germany and France in April.

Gates provided a clue to the administration's thinking at a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, when he was asked what more NATO could do to help contain the al Qaida-backed Taliban insurgency and stabilize Afghanistan.

He made no mention of seeking additional allied combat forces. Instead, he said the administration would like nations contributing to ISAF to lift restrictions, known as caveats, on the use of their forces and to provide additional equipment.

Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones, a former NATO commander, however, could lay out the administration's ideas at an annual European security conference in Munich, Germany, in February.

The allies should also send more trainers and funds to build the Afghan police and the Afghan National Army, he said.

"I think that there are three areas where our allies need to do more. I think that there is a need for them to provide more caveat-free forces. I think that there is a need for them to provide more civilian support in terms of training and civil society," Gates said.

Last year, Gates pleaded for more ISAF troops at the annual NATO summit, but came away with only a single French battalion.

Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to the alliance, said he's advising administration officials against seeking more NATO troops because of the potential for "early difficulties within NATO."

Instead, he said, European governments should be asked to redouble their commitments to fighting illegal narcotics trafficking, training the Afghan police, building the country's legal system, and boosting good governance under a 2006 accord known as the Afghanistan Compact.

A prominent senior European official should be named to coordinate their efforts, said Hunter, a senior adviser at the RAND Corp., a policy research organization.

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