By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009
Britain's defense chief yesterday sharply criticized NATO's other European members for failing to do their part in Afghanistan, saying some of them had "limited appetites" for the operation and preferred "freeloading on the back of U.S. military security."
The assessment by British Defense Secretary John Hutton followed what one Pentagon official called a "disappointing" response this week to a request from NATO headquarters for additional troops and other resources to provide security for Afghanistan's elections this fall.
"We very much appreciate the contributions of our European allies," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, while at the same time expressing understanding of the British official's frustration. "We all need to do more."
Morrell noted that the United States will provide "thousands of additional forces and billions of additional dollars this year" for Afghanistan and that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "will continue to encourage our allies to do more."
The Bush administration has repeatedly pressed NATO's European members to increase their contributions to Afghanistan -- now totaling about 32,000 troops -- and to eliminate combat restrictions some contributors have placed on the roles their forces can play. There are 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with slightly less than half of them under NATO command.
President-elect Barack Obama intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to nearly double the U.S. force in Afghanistan this year. An official with his transition team yesterday declined to comment on Hutton's remarks, delivered in a speech outside London, and referred a reporter to a major speech Obama delivered last summer in Berlin.
"The Afghan people need our troops and your troops, our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to develop their economy and to help them rebuild their nation," Obama said then. "We have too much at stake to turn back now."
Obama's national security team plans to reevaluate U.S. objectives and operations in Afghanistan, developing a new strategy for the seven-year war to replace what it believes has been a lack of coordination among allies and between the military and civilian effort there. The conflict has deteriorated steadily, with extremist attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties reaching their highest levels last year.
The Obama team hopes to complete work on the new strategy by the NATO summit in early April. European and Pentagon officials suggested yesterday that alliance members may be waiting to consider new commitments until they hear what he has to say.
The NATO force in Afghanistan has long been divided between those who conduct the bulk of combat operations -- including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, in addition to the United States -- and those such as Germany whose operations are restricted and whose zones of operations are centered in more peaceful areas.
Germany has argued that it has kept the peace in its area, centered in northern Afghanistan, and that it has made major contributions to the overall effort, including police training and other tasks. Last fall, the German government agreed to add 1,000 troops, bringing its total to 4,500.
The reluctance of some European governments reflects deep public disapproval of the Bush administration, and even Britain's government -- which fields the second-largest NATO contingent in Afghanistan with more than 8,000 troops and plans to add 3,000 this year -- feels it must tread carefully. Even as Hutton was delivering his speech, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote in a Guardian newspaper column yesterday that the notion of a "war on terror" was "misleading and mistaken." Defining it as "a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists, or good and evil" played into the hands of extremists by unifying groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah with little in common, Miliband said.
In his speech, Hutton said NATO risked irrelevance if it does not keep its commitment in Afghanistan. "President-elect Obama has already indicated that he believes significant increases in force levels are required," he said.
"The campaign in Afghanistan is evidence of the limited appetite amongst some European member states for supporting the most active operation NATO has ever been tasked with," he added. "It isn't good enough to always look to the U.S. for political, financial and military cover. . . . Freeloading on the back of U.S. military security is not an option if we wish to be equal partners in this trans-Atlantic alliance."