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NATO Struggles To Match Obama's Afghanistan Strategy

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stressed that Afghanistan presents a key challenge to all NATO members -- not just the United States.
BRUSSELS -- NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan and he pledged that other NATO allies would add at least 5,000.

"I can confirm that the allies and our partners will do more, substantially more," Rasmussen said in Brussels today. "In 2010, the non-U.S. members of this mission will send at least 5,000 more soldiers to this operation and probably a few thousand on top of that."

However, this would still fall short of the 10,000 additional forces reportedly requested by Washington.

Rasmussen said he had spent the past few weeks trying to persuade U.S. allies to contribute more troops. Rasmussen stressed that Afghanistan presents a key challenge to all NATO members -- not just the United States.

"This is not just America's war," he said. "What is happening in Afghanistan poses a clear and present danger to the citizens in all our countries."

Rasmussen said instability in Afghanistan contributes to terrorism, Islamist fundamentalism, and the international drug trade -- which all affect European allies too.

More Multilateralism

It remains unclear where the extra non-U.S. troops would come from. Britain has pledged an extra 500 soldiers, Poland reportedly 600, but among the larger countries both France and Germany have so far failed to follow suit.

French paratroopers await the arrival of French President Nicolas Sarkozy at Camp Warehouse in Kabul last year.
Officials say a number of countries may extend the tours of duty of soldiers brought in to secure the August 20 presidential election earlier this year. Rasmussen said a number of allies have said that they await the results a January 29 conference in London expected to draw up a new "contract" between the international community and the Afghan government.

Military officials from NATO countries will meet in Brussels for a "force generation" conference next week.

Although he said he was confident that he had secured the necessary troop pledges from European allies, NATO's Rasmussen today sought to pile on the pressure. "Allies and partners in our mission must do more," he said.

Rasmussen argued that by turning to allies for help, Washington is now pursuing a "multilateral approach" to Afghanistan. Europe, which has long sought a say in U.S. decisions, must now "demonstrate that multilateralism delivers concrete results."

But European allies remain reticent. Germany is still suffering from the fallout of the air strike called in by the commander of its forces in Konduz in late August on two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban, in which dozens of civilians also died. The episode has cost a minister and commander in chief their jobs and further undermined public support for the mission in the country.

Other allies, too, seem content to treat stabilizing Afghanistan as a U.S. problem.

Afghan Support

Obama's speech at West Point last night put an end to four months of uncertainty about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan. The U.S. president said he would send 30,000 more soldiers to the country, bringing total U.S. troop levels to around 100,000. Obama also said a gradual pullout of troops would begin in 18 months' time, in July 2011.

The troop surge will focus on Afghanistan restive south, in particular Kandahar and Helmand provinces, as well as the ring road. Training Afghan soldiers and police will also be a major part of the objective of the surge.

NATO diplomats say the idea behind Obama's strategy is to try and emulate the 2006-07 surge in Iraq, which led to a drastic drop in insurgent attacks. The extra troops will be deployed to hold larger settlements and the kind of active pursuit of the enemy on open ground -- seen in Helmand, for example -- will largely be abandoned.

However, there is quiet skepticism at NATO headquarters about the plan. Securing larger settlements and "leaving most of the country to the Taliban," as one diplomat privately put it, could make it hard to claim victory in overwhelmingly tribal Afghanistan where rural areas remain very important.

But officials also say there is a dearth of alternative visions around the NATO ambassadors' meeting table. It is generally accepted that there are no alternatives to backing the U.S. strategy, particularly given the large U.S. troop superiority over the other allies. Officials also expect the United States to effectively take control of the operations of the NATO-led forces in the south of the country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration has been criticized for high levels of corruption and Rasmussen said the record of his government must improve. NATO chief Rasmussen said good governance was the best way to "suck the oxygen away from the Taliban."

But he also tacitly admitted improved governance is essential to secure the continued commitment of Afghanistan's international backers. He said falling levels of popular support for the Afghan war in Europe and North America are a matter of concern.

Rasmussen did not commit NATO to any clear timelines or a possible exit strategy. These are issues left to NATO's foreign ministers who will be meeting in Brussels on December 3.

But Rasmussen reiterated the pledge he made this summer when he assumed his office that NATO will stay in Afghanistan "as long as it takes."

Rasmussen said NATO would only pull out of areas where Afghanistan's own security forces are ready to take over responsibility.

"We have no intention to have come this far and sacrificed this much to falter before the finish line," he said. "We will stay as long as it takes to finish our job. And our mission in Afghanistan will end when the Afghans are capable to secure and to run the country themselves."

The NATO chief said he hopes 10 to 15 districts could be handed over to Afghan security forces in 2010. There are 398 districts in Afghanistan.

NATO officials say the alliance expects to be able to train about 4,000 new Afghan troops and police a month. The strength of the Afghan National Army and National Police is currently just below 100,000 each. NATO officials say they are eventually looking to boost the combined figure to 400,000.

NATO diplomats say U.S. commanders acknowledge the quality and trustworthiness of the new recruits cannot be taken for granted. There have already been incidents of newly trained Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their Western comrades. There is also massive anecdotal evidence of trainees absconding with their weapons. "There are no good solutions in Afghanistan," one official says.