NATO demurs on more troops until U.S. Afghan strategy ready

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 23, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Top NATO officials suggested Friday that they support Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's call for a bigger counterinsurgency strategy in that war, but said they may send more troops only after they know how the administration intends to proceed there.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, to meet with the defense ministers of 28 NATO nations, which provide troops and economic aid to Afghanistan.

There, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there was "broad support" for the strategy outlined by McChrystal to the Obama administration in September. But NATO stopped short of committing more forces. McChrystal has called for as many as 80,000 additional troops.

"There were a number of allies who indicated they were thinking about, or were moving toward, increasing either their military or their civilian contributions, or both, and I found that very heartening," Gates said.

Rasmussen said that NATO wants to hear the Obama administration's new Afghan strategy, which officials are to announce next month. Gates is expected to give his recommendations to the president in the next day or two.

Since August, the administration has been locked in a protracted debate about Afghanistan as a series of troubling events have unfolded.

A resurgent Taliban has taken over more parts of that country. And in August, the re-election of U.S.-backed incumbent President Hamid Karzai was marred by vote rigging. And more and more, Afghans and Americans alike see Karzai's government as corrupt and incompetent.

This week, after a U.N.-backed election fraud commission voided hundreds of thousands of votes, a runoff election was set between Karzai and his closest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

But many believe the new election on Nov. 7 could see lower turnout because of winter weather and because Afghans are disillusioned with the process. Others believe that the voter scandal could cause many Afghanis to switch their votes to Abdullah.

To tackle the rising violence against Afghans and coalition troops, McChrystal wants a counterinsurgency approach that would require more ground troops to integrate into population centers, improve security and train Afghan troops and police. In Washington, some administration officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, are calling for a more limited strategy of using aerial drone attacks to go after al Qaida and other extremists groups. The Biden way would demand fewer troops.

At Friday's meeting, Gates sought to reassure NATO that the United States is committed to Afghanistan, even as it debates its strategy there.

Gates said Friday that it was "vastly premature" to draw conclusions about the U.S. plans for Afghanistan, saying the current debate was at an "analytical phase."

Many NATO countries -- including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany -- are facing mounting pressure from their citizens to pull out of Afghanistan. All four nations have seen troops deaths surge this year as their forces face more complex Taliban attacks.

Moreover, officials of some NATO nations felt they were forced to keep Afghanistan intact while the United States waged war in Iraq. But with the Iraqi war winding down, they now want their troops to come home.

That NATO countries embrace a counterinsurgency-focused approach is not surprising. Many Europeans fear that depending on air strikes to tackle insurgents, as Biden proposes, will lead to more civilian casualties, which will increase objections to the war there.

Rasmussen's comments Friday made clear that NATO believes the majority of any additional troops will come from the United States.

To deploy soldiers by May, the U.S. Army would need to make a decision by November; the Marines need about three months' notice.

Currently, there are 52,000 NATO and foreign troops from 42 nations in Afghanistan; the United States has additional 67,000 troops there.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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