Bush to Meet NATO Allies Divided Over Adding Troops in Afghanistan
Monday, March 31, 2008; Page A15
President Bush heads to Europe today to try to rescue the faltering mission in Afghanistan, and key NATO allies plan to meet his demands for more forces with modest troop increases, though not by as much as U.S. military officers say is needed to put down a stubborn Taliban insurgency.
France has signaled it will announce at this week's NATO summit that it will send another 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, while Britain plans to send about 800 more and Poland has already promised another 400. But Germany and others refuse to contribute additional ground forces, and the United States may have to increase its own commitment to make up the shortfall, U.S. and European officials and analysts said.
The friction over force levels underscores a philosophical divide between the United States and its allies over the best approach in Afghanistan more than six years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government -- and, more broadly, over the future of the NATO alliance. The summit in Bucharest, Romania, which begins Wednesday, will also test the allies over issues such as NATO enlargement, missile defense and the relationship with an increasingly muscular Russia.
Nothing on the agenda is more important to Bush's legacy than turning Afghanistan around. "It's very clear that we all need to do more," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said last week. "The president's message is going to be one of the importance of success in Afghanistan, the need for all countries to make it a priority, the need for us to develop a more integrated strategy for success and the need for all of us to do more."
Gen. Dan K. McNeill, top commander of the NATO-led international force, has already sent the alliance a similar message in starker terms: Provide more troops or accept a longer war. "I'd like the NATO allies and their non-NATO partners in this alliance to properly resource this force," he said in a recent interview at his Kabul headquarters, "and absent that, that they adopt the patience and will for a slower pace of progress."
McNeill estimated that it will be necessary to maintain at least the current foreign force level in Afghanistan -- now about 55,000, including 27,000 U.S. troops among NATO and non-NATO forces -- for at least three to five years until Afghan security forces are ready to take over. It will take that long for Afghan forces to obtain the airplanes, helicopters and other logistical support they need to be fully independent, he said.
Also important would be lifting the restrictions each nation sets on what its forces can do. On the wall beside McNeill's desk is a chart detailing the various restraints, with columns labeled "Prohibited" and "Yes, but . . . ." McNeill said he repeatedly asks foreign governments to lift limits temporarily. "I'm batting about .500," he said. In a war, he added, "it's not a good average."
The resistance by many NATO allies to stepping up their involvement despite pressure from Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates means that a greater burden will probably fall on the United States, administration officials said. Bush has authorized another 3,200 Marines for Afghanistan for seven months, but without more European help, he may be pressed to send even more U.S. forces or to extend the Marine buildup.
The debate in Bucharest comes after attacks in Afghanistan spiked by nearly 30 percent in 2007. A recent report by the Atlantic Council of the United States, headed by retired Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO commander, warned that "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan." As the summit approaches, NATO leaders are trying to formulate a new strategy, drafting a "vision statement" intended to reassure European publics weary of the conflict, but Europeans reportedly resisted including a five-year commitment to Afghanistan sought by Washington.
The NATO leaders plan to debate strategies for southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban has been strongest. One idea under discussion is for the U.S. military eventually to take over the regional command for the south, which is currently headed by the Canadians and includes primarily British, Canadian and Dutch forces. Another proposal is to lengthen military tours, said William Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, "so we're not swapping people out all the time." He suggested "extending the period for whoever is in charge of the south so it doesn't rotate every six or nine months."
U.S. troops in Afghanistan now serve 15-month tours, but other NATO countries balk at extending their shorter tours. "If they had us do more than six months, everyone would quit," British Bombardier Tim Dean, who is fighting in the southern province of Helmand, said in a recent interview.
Canada and other key NATO allies are pressing for a shift in their core military mission from combat to training Afghan security forces, in part to ease homefront concerns over casualties, officials said. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even threatened to pull out unless NATO sends another 1,000 troops and helicopters to bolster it in the south.