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Allies Feel Strain of Afghan War

Both President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have toned down their public pressure on allies. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Bush at his Texas ranch in November, U.S. and German officials said, she told him that while Bonn would step up its contribution in quiet northern Afghanistan, any change in Germany's noncombat role would spell political disaster for her conservative government.

"It's not an excuse; it's simply reality -- coalition reality and domestic reality," a German official said. Merkel came away with Bush's pledge to praise Germany's efforts and stop criticizing.

Although Gates began a meeting of NATO defense ministers late last year by saying he would not let them "off the hook" for their responsibilities in Afghanistan, he said in a news conference at the end of the session that further public criticism was not productive.

Still, the Defense Department hopes that increasing its own contribution -- nearly half of an additional 7,500 troops Gates has said are needed in Afghanistan -- will encourage the allies. "As we're considering digging even deeper to make up for the shortfall in Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, "we would expect our allies in the fight to do the same."

Many Europeans believe that the United States committed attention and resources to Iraq at Afghanistan's expense. But U.S. officials say the problems of NATO countries in Afghanistan have roots in not investing sufficiently in their militaries after the Cold War. Canada, U.S. officials say, needs American military airlift for its troops in Afghanistan because it got rid of a fleet of heavy lift helicopters.

At the same time that they want more from their partners, however, U.S. defense officials often disdain their abilities. No one, they insist, is as good at counterinsurgency as the U.S. military.

U.S. and British forces have long derided each other's counterinsurgency tactics. In Iraq, British commanders touted their successful "hearts and minds" efforts in Northern Ireland, tried to replicate them in southern Iraq, and criticized more heavy-handed U.S. operations in the north. Their U.S. counterparts say they are tired of hearing about Northern Ireland and point out that British troops largely did not quell sectarian violence in the south.

The same tensions have emerged in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials criticized what one called a "colonial" attitude that kept the British from retaining control over areas wrested from the Taliban. Disagreement leaked out publicly early last year when British troops withdrew from the Musa Qala district of Helmand after striking a deal with local tribal leaders. The tribal chiefs quickly relinquished control to the Taliban.

Britain, with a higher percentage of its forces deployed worldwide than the United States, is stretched thin in Afghanistan. Not only did the British have insufficient force strength to hold conquered territory, but the reconstruction and development assistance that was supposed to consolidate military gains did not arrive.

"It's worth reminding the Americans that the entire British army is smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps," said one sympathetic former U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

After 10 months of Taliban control, Musa Qala was retaken in December in combat involving British, Afghan and U.S. forces. The new Marine deployments will supplement British troops, and both sides insist they have calmed their differences. "Whatever may or may not have been said between the two in the past," said one British official, ". . . we are now in the same place."

Now, he said, "the much more interesting question is where do we go from here, and can we sustain a cautiously positive picture in Musa Qala" and elsewhere.


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