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NATO Goes 'Cap In Hand' For More Afghan Troops

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Georgian soldiers arrive back in Tbilisi in August 2008

Georgian soldiers arrive back in Tbilisi in August 2008

BRUSSELS -- NATO's perennial search for extra troops for Afghanistan -- known in alliance parlance as "force generation" -- says perhaps more about the future of NATO than that of Afghanistan.

Top military officials from the 28 NATO countries are meeting today at the alliance's military headquarters in Mons, Belgium to discuss further contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan.

It is the job of the NATO secretary-general to go "cap in hand," as one previous holder of the post put it, to the member states and persuade them to contribute soldiers. Increasingly, the NATO chiefs have less and less to show for their efforts.

On December 4, when the current incumbent, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, announced that 7,000 non-U.S. troops would be added to the 30,000-strong U.S. surge announced by U.S. President Barack Obama last week, he was coy about the provenance of the extra forces.

Mining Outside NATO

Behind the scenes at a foreign-ministers meeting in Brussels last week, NATO officials made it clear that much of that 7,000 would have to be drawn from countries outside NATO. Countries such as Georgia, which is desperate for as close a military relationship with Washington as possible.

On December 3, Georgia's Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze made what remains the largest individual non-U.S. bid to the surge.

''More than 900 will follow to serve with the United States armed forces in Helmand Province, and I would say that this is not the end. We will see how things are, and maybe there will be more contributions," Vashadze said.

But Tbilisi may be prepared to be even more generous. RFE/RL's Georgian Service reports that Georgian Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia will today meet with Commander Roger A. Brady, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, in Tbilisi to discuss Afghan troop commitments.

There are suggestions Georgia's contribution could run to a few thousand -- a realistic proposition considering the country had 2,000 men in Iraq until 2008.

Unconfirmed reports say that among the non-U.S. NATO allies, Italy could send about 1,000 extra soldiers, Poland 600, Britain 500. Other, mostly Eastern European countries, will be making smaller contributions.

Some 1,500 of the extra allied soldiers advertised by Rasmussen are already in Afghanistan, their tours of duty extended after they were originally sent there for short-term missions to provide security for the August 20 presidential election.

However, both Germany and France, major European NATO allies, have said they currently see no need to send more troops. Both field relatively large contingents already, numbering some 4,400 and 3,100 respectively -- although those are dwarfed by the 67,000 U.S. troops as well as Britain's 9,000.

The surge, once complete, will take the combined strength of international forces in Afghanistan to some 140,000-150,000 troops, two-thirds of whom will hail from the United States.

Skepticism For More Troops

The unaccommodating response from Berlin and Paris reflects the skeptical mood in Europe, where the general public in most countries feel the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable as well as unnecessary.

This sentiment has been boosted by the recent jump in casualty figures, as enemy-initiated attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan now easily outnumber those in Iraq. The effects of the global financial crisis have also taken their toll.

But perhaps most significantly, there is growing pessimism in Europe about the prospects of an exclusively military strategy. Both Germany and France want to see what the French daily "Le Monde" today calls a "real strategy" for Afghanistan, a broader comprehensive approach focusing on the political and economic viability of the country.

Paris and Berlin are expected to use a hastily convened international conference in London on January 28 to offer a European vision for Afghanistan.

Doubts also exist among military officials and experts that an Iraq-style surge can succeed in Afghanistan, which is far more tribal and less urbanized than Iraq, where barely a quarter of the population is literate -- as opposed to Iraq's 84 percent literacy rate -- and whose transportation and information infrastructure is nearly nonexistent compared to that of Iraq.

A failure by NATO's European allies to back up the United States could lead to a further erosion of European influence in the world, Daniel Korski of the European Council for Foreign Relations warned in a recent analysis.

Korski observes that while Obama may be prepared to consult Europe more closely on global issues such as Afghan strategy, he needs something in return. The United States, he writes, "wants real partners in a world that it no longer dominates."

The U.S. military plan, insofar as it is known, is to rapidly build up forces in the south of Afghanistan where the insurgency is at its strongest, and secure population centers and important roads in the area.

Some of the extra troops will be involved in training the Afghan army and police, whose combined strength currently stands at some 200,000 men. U.S. officials on the ground have said the government in Kabul will need at least 400,000 security personnel to hold the country.

Recent experience shows the reliability of many newly trained recruits is questionable, while interethnic tensions are on the rise between the majority Pashtun population and the ethnic Tajiks who hold sway in the upper ranks of the Afghan National Army.

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