NATO ministers back Afghan plan for tactics shift, but hold off on troop commitments

10:10, October 24, 2009      

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Participants of the Informal Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers pose for a group photo in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, Oct. 23, 2009. The Informal Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers concluded here on Friday.(Xinhua/Zeng Yi)

NATO defense ministers on Friday broadly backed plans drawn up by their top commander in Afghanistan designed to refocus the mission to provide more protection for civilians, but they delayed any decision on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for tens of thousands more troops to do the job.

"The purpose of today's meeting was not to make a decision on figures," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

But he added there was "broad support" from all ministers for McChrystal's proposal to "re-calibrate" the mission.

McChrystal's plans would switch the focus of the operation away from the pursuit of Taliban fighters to giving the NATO mission a greater presence in Afghan towns and villages to ensure civilians are protected from the Islamist militants and enable an intensification of development work.

"Many allies spoke positively about Gen. McChrystal's assessment," said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

However, McChrystal's plan would involve the deployment of tens of thousands of more troops - some reports put the figure as high as 80,000 - at a time when public support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping in the face of rising casualties among allied forces.

The United States, which would have to provide the vast bulk of any NATO reinforcements, has yet to commit to the McChrystal plan.

Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak (L) talks with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during the Informal Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, Oct. 23, 2009.Xinhua/Zeng Yi)

Some influential voices in Washington are opposed, saying force levels should be kept at current levels and the mission directed more at targeting Al-Qaida hideouts on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Friday's endorsement by the NATO allies gives more weight to the pro-McChrystal camp in Washington, as does the support of the senior UN envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide who said it was imperative that more troops be sent to improve security and to train the Afghan Security Forces.

Eide also said European allies had to step forward with more troops to the mission to ensure that the U.S. did not carry the burden on its own.

"This cannot be a U.S.-only enterprise," Eide said. "There has to be contributions from other contributors and in particular Europeans."

Although no allies came forward publicly with offers of more troops at Friday's meeting, Gates said "there were a number of allies who have indicated they were thinking about or moving toward increasing their military or civilian contributions or both, and I found that very heartening."

U.S. troops currently make up almost half of NATO's 71,400 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In addition, there are about 36,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan serving outside the NATO command.

Britain has said it will add 500 troops to its contingent of 9,000 and Polish sources said the government is considering adding 600 to its almost 2,000.

Participants of the Informal Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers pose for a group photo in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, Oct. 23, 2009. The Informal Meeting of NATO Defense Ministers concluded here on Friday.(Xinhua/Zeng Yi)

However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ruled out sending any more, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has said his country would likely maintain its contribution at 4,500 troops, although he suggested that could change after a major conference on Afghanistan expected early next year.

Many of the expected new troops will be assigned to training or "partnering" Afghan security forces with an aim to preparing them to take over the lead security role from NATO.

"We cannot and we should not be in the lead in Afghanistan for ever," Fogh Rasmussen said. "We will need more training teams and we will need more money."

He said NATO nations will also be demanding more from the Afghan government to fight corruption and provide services for the civilians in order to boost public confidence in the Western-backed authorities.

Concern about the political situation in Afghanistan is one factor in the delay from President Barrack Obama in deciding on whether to approve the McChrystal plan.

Widespread fraud allegations in the first-round vote on Aug. 30 led to a third of votes for incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai being annulled, forcing him into a head-to-head run-off vote against his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Obama has been unwilling to commit fresh troops until the political uncertainty is resolved, and may European allies have faced pressure from critics who say their troops should not be sent to fight and die for a government that has failed to tackle corruption and re-elected by a fraudulent vote.

"We have to make sure the new government in Afghanistan is committed to their job before we send any more troops to Afghanistan," said Danish Defense Minister Soren Gade.

Eide said he was confident that voting fraud could be minimized in the second-round.

"It should be easier in some respects," he said. "It's not possible to eliminate fraud ... but we hope to reduce it."

The UN has fired election workers linked to fraud and will be stepping up monitoring procedures. Eide urged the European Union to agree quickly to send election observers. He said preparations for the elections were on track.

Source: Xinhua
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