NATO allies consider increasing troops in Afghanistan

But some waiting for outcome of Nov. 7 election

Secretary for Defense Robert Gates (front center), with NATO defense ministers, said President Obama is still weeks away from deciding about adding troops in Afghanistan. Secretary for Defense Robert Gates (front center), with NATO defense ministers, said President Obama is still weeks away from deciding about adding troops in Afghanistan. (Associated Press)
By Lara Jakes and Slobodan Lekic
Associated Press / October 24, 2009

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - NATO and United Nations officials signaled yesterday that they may request more international troops to join American forces in Afghanistan as the top US defense official said President Obama is still weeks away from deciding on a shift in war strategy.

At a meeting yesterday of 28 NATO defense ministers, Pentagon chief Robert Gates said allies indicated a willingness to boost military and civilian aid - even as Obama remains undecided over whether to escalate US troop strength to counter Afghan insurgents.

“I do believe that additional international troops will be needed in the future,’’ agreed Kai Eide, the top UN official in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen cited “broad support’’ from defense ministers to stick with a war strategy devised by American commander General Stanley McChrystal that calls for tens of thousands more combat troops - including as many as 80,000 Americans.

The NATO ministers did not, however, discuss specific numbers of troops to be sent, Rasmussen said. Gates added he did not seek specific aid promises.

NATO officials have largely resisted American entreaties to boost their troop contributions to Afghanistan. Britain recently pledged to send 500 troops but only if NATO and the US increased their numbers as well.

The Obama administration is still mulling whether to approve McChrystal’s proposed strategy aimed at eliminating terrorist threats by curbing the Taliban, in part by securing communities and protecting local Afghan people.

Top Obama advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, favor a more focused war strategy of targeting Al Qaeda leaders in neighboring Pakistan with armed unmanned spy planes and special forces strikes.

In Washington, a senior administration official said yesterday that Obama was far from settled on a strategy and that there were no assurances that McChrystal will get what he is seeking. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Gates said yesterday that the “analytical phase’’ of the administration’s war strategy review was nearing an end, but cautioned that Obama will sift over options provided by his national security team over the next two to three weeks. That target date could coincide closely with the planned Nov. 7 election runoff between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

An estimated 104,000 US and NATO troops will be in Afghanistan by the end of the year - two-thirds of which are American.

McChrystal, who flew to Bratislava late Thursday, offered the ministers a 15-minute update on the war and his overview of how to win it. The ministers did not ask any questions or have any reaction during the closed-door lunch meeting, according to a US defense official who described it on condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting more candidly.

Gates, the US defense secretary, said he was buoyed by the allied support of the 8-year-old war that has grown increasingly unpopular in NATO nations. He said NATO ministers would remain in Afghanistan until the conflict is successfully resolved, citing “a renewed determination to see this through.’’

“There were a number of allies who indicated they were thinking about, or were moving toward, increasing either their military or their civilian contributions, or both,’’ Gates said at a news conference in Bratislava. “And I found that very heartening.’’

Still, several NATO ministers sounded dubious about agreeing to send more forces without assurances by the Obama administration to do the same.

They also cited concerns about committing more aid to Karzai’s corruption-tainted government - at least before the Nov. 7 runoff.

With 2,160 troops in Afghanistan, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop said his country is awaiting the final election results “because the legitimacy of the Afghan government is key.’’

Danish Defense Minister Soeren Gade predicted allies won’t increase troop levels until they’re assured the government in Kabul is committed to the NATO goals.

“We have to make sure the new government in Afghanistan are committed to their job before we send any more troops,’’ Gade said. Denmark has 690 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Additionally, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung of Germany said he does not expect his country to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan when their soldiers’ orders come up for renewal in December. Germany’s existing policy allows the deployment of up to 4,500 soldiers, and just over 4,200 currently are in Afghanistan.