WASHINGTON—President Bush prodded NATO allies Thursday for more help in Afghanistan, where U.S. commanders are bracing for a spring offensive by the Taliban.
At least three dozen countries have contributed troops to the 36,000-member NATO force, but some operate under restrictions that effectively prevent combat. The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 15,000 under NATO command.
Administration officials and outside experts have become increasingly concerned about the Taliban's resurgence and the fragility of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. Five years after American troops ousted the extremist Taliban regime and its al-Qaida allies after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Afghanistan is struggling against Islamic extremists, corruption, poverty, regional warlords and a burgeoning opium trade.
The rebuilding effort has become a crucial test for NATO, a Cold War alliance that's trying to prove its relevance against new threats.
"For NATO to succeed, allies must be sure that we fill the security gaps," Bush said Thursday in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center. "Allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide."
Analysts say that British, Danish and Canadian troops are sharing the burden with American soldiers in Afghanistan. Estonia, Poland and Romania also have helped. Most of the criticism is directed at France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
"The countries come in. They carve out their zones. They focus on those zones. If they don't have combat, that's good. But other people are having combat," Gen. James Jones, the former supreme allied commander in Europe, complained at a NATO gathering in December.
At a congressional hearing Thursday, Anthony Cordesman, a national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center, said success in Afghanistan required more troops, more money and more patience.
"No one can return from visiting the front in Afghanistan without realizing there is a very real risk that the U.S. and NATO could lose their war with al-Qaida, the Taliban and the other Islamist movements fighting the Afghan government," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Bush's call for more help from NATO was one of a series of steps intended to shore up the Afghan government before it loses all credibility. The president said that the United States would provide $11.6 billion in economic aid over the next two years and 3,200 more troops for the battle zone.
Some Democrats urged him to do more.
"The president should be bolder and send all of the 22,000 troops of the Iraqi surge to Afghanistan, where they could actually make a difference," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The gloves must come off if we are to prevail against the Taliban and the drug lords."
Lantos, who traveled to Afghanistan last month, said the war-torn nation was on the brink of chaos again.
"It was painfully clear that with the current security situation, and with the indications of a new assault by the Taliban planned for this spring, things could well fall apart," he said.
Administration critics contend that the situation in Afghanistan is far worse than it should be because the Iraq war diverted attention and resources. Bush sought to deflect that criticism even as he acknowledged the challenges in Afghanistan.
"A lot of attention here in the United States is on Iraq," he told his Washington audience. "I want to make sure people's attention is also on Afghanistan."