The Fight in Afghanistan

Bush to Pursue Fresh NATO Commitments

Canadian soldiers remove the body of one of two colleagues killed in a suicide bombing yesterday in Kandahar.
Canadian soldiers remove the body of one of two colleagues killed in a suicide bombing yesterday in Kandahar. (By Allauddin Khan -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

TALLINN, Estonia, Nov. 27 -- President Bush will seek fresh troops and equipment for the fight in Afghanistan, and fewer restrictions on how they can be used, when he sits down this week with NATO allies to review the state of the dangerous mission there, according to senior U.S. officials.

Bush flew Monday to this scenic capital, on his way to a summit of NATO's leaders in Riga, Latvia, that begins Tuesday. There, U.S. officials say, they are hoping allies will renew their commitments in Afghanistan, where a stepped-up Taliban insurgency is posing stiff new challenges for some 33,000 NATO troops, about a third of them American.

The mission is shaping up as the major issue for discussion among Bush and the leaders of the 25 other NATO member countries, who are gathering for the first time in two years. A failed operation in Afghanistan would threaten NATO's ambition to one day play a more robust role in helping address the world's crises.

Briefing reporters on Air Force One on the way to Estonia, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley cited "an increasing awareness at how important this is for the war on terror, how important it is for Afghanistan and how important it is for NATO not to fail."

Some key NATO countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have placed sharp limits on how their troops can be used, to the growing consternation of the United States and other countries whose forces are involved in fierce battles with the Taliban in southern parts of Afghanistan. Only the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have combat troops in the south.

Meanwhile, calls for more troops from NATO commanders have faced resistance from member countries, some of which have seen public support for the mission wane as casualties have increased. On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a Canadian armored vehicle in the south, killing two soldiers and bringing to 44 the number of Canadian troops killed in the country.

"Events in Afghanistan are reaching a critical juncture, and European politics and perceptions, as well as U.S. commitments in Iraq, may prevent NATO from getting the assets necessary to ensure victory," said retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the former U.S. supreme allied commander in Europe, at a briefing held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

U.S. officials say they hope the summit will help focus attention on the needs of the mission in Afghanistan, which they say include not only greater military assistance but also economic and political reconstruction efforts.

NATO military spokesmen in Kabul said they will seek to review the issue of troop restrictions, or "caveats," in the hopes that some personnel already stationed in Afghanistan might take on broader roles or be able to shift from one sector to another if needed. "If the caveats can be reduced, that is essentially the same as adding new troops, because it frees up troops that are here," said Maj. Luke Knittig, chief NATO spokesman in the Afghan capital.

Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters of the "hard price" being paid by Canada as he sought to explain the need for more flexibility for NATO commanders.

"A country like Canada, and the Netherlands, has every right to expect that their allies are at their back, which means if they get into trouble, they can count on support from all of NATO," Fried said last week.

Privately, U.S. officials are playing down the prospects of any breakthrough this week. In Germany, where public opinion seems strong against lifting restrictions that keep troops in the safer northern areas, Chancellor Angela Merkel last week reiterated her determination to keep them from moving south. U.S. officials remained hopeful, however, that Merkel could continue to frame the debate to allow for some loosening of restrictions in the future.

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