Bush to Urge NATO to Commit More Troops to Afghanistan

President Bush and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meet in Crawford, Tex. NATO allies are reluctant to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan, leaving the fighting to U.S., British and Canadian forces.
President Bush and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer meet in Crawford, Tex. NATO allies are reluctant to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan, leaving the fighting to U.S., British and Canadian forces. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)

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By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

CRAWFORD, Tex., May 21 -- President Bush vowed Monday to ask NATO allies to commit more troops and other resources to quell the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, calling the success of the alliance's mission there vital to the future security of both the United States and Europe.

At his ranch here, Bush met with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and promised to again press reluctant NATO allies to do more to rebuild Afghanistan and root out the Taliban, which over the past year has gained strength in the southern portion of that country.

"We'll work with our NATO allies to convince them that we must share more of the burden and must all share the risks in meeting our goal," Bush said, adding that success "requires more than military action."

Bush wants some European allies to provide more troops to fight the Taliban and to lift restrictions on how and where troops can fight. He has also pressed for more help with equipment and reconstruction, which has been slowed by a recent increase in violence in Afghanistan.

With the help of de Hoop Scheffer, Bush and other U.S. officials have been advocating those changes for months, but many nations remain reluctant to comply.

NATO's 37,000-person force has taken the lead in the fight in Afghanistan since U.S. forces overthrew the ruling Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Despite the importance of the mission, fault lines have developed among members of the 26-nation alliance, as U.S., British and Canadian forces have done the bulk of the fighting -- and taken the bulk of casualties.

"Afghanistan is still one of the front lines in our fight against terrorism. And it is my strong conviction that that front line should not become a fault line," de Hoop Scheffer said, as he stood with Bush during a brief news conference at the president's ranch.

Over the past year, violence has increased in Afghanistan with the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies increasingly using suicide bombers and roadside explosives against NATO forces, aid and reconstruction workers as well as civilians. The increase in violence has slowed the already anemic pace of reconstruction, undercutting support for NATO forces and the Western-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, dozens of civilians have been killed as NATO forces or the separate U.S.-led task force have battled the Taliban, prompting angry protests by Afghans and threats by members of the nation's parliament to expel the foreign troops.

Karzai has spoken out against the accidental killings, saying that the nation can no longer accept them. The civilian casualties are undermining support for the alliance among local residents whose backing is crucial in efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Both leaders said that they regret the civilian casualties and will work to avoid them in the future. At the same time, both men laid the ultimate blame for the civilian toll at the feet of the Taliban, whose fighters, they say, hide among civilians.

"We are in a different moral category," de Hoop Scheffer said of the Taliban, adding that he thinks NATO forces still receive support from the "majority of the Afghan people."

Even as NATO allies have struggled to equalize the burden in Afghanistan, the Taliban has gained strength, and many military analysts believe that it has reconstituted itself in the ungoverned tribal regions of Pakistan. Facing his own internal political challenges, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been trying to honor a peace accord with the tribal leaders thought to be sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

De Hoop Scheffer and his wife, Jeannine, arrived at Bush's ranch on Sunday, where they dined with the president and first lady, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The visit underscored the sensitivity of the Afghanistan mission, which has become more difficult in the past year, and the importance of the other issues the leaders discussed: the status of Kosovo, a proposed missile defense system for Europe and NATO expansion -- something that is likely to be taken up in 2008.

In Kosovo, which is currently run by the United Nations, Russia opposes a U.S.-backed resolution to make the region permanently independent from Serbia. Russia also opposes a missile defense system, which Bush has called vital for warding off missile threats from "rogue states," including Iran.

"I will continue to reach out to Russia," Bush said. "I sent Secretary Gates to Russia recently . . . to make sure that the Russians understand that this missile shield is not directed at them, but in fact directed at other nations that could conceivably affect the peace of Europe."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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