March 27, 2008 / 1:39 PM / 9 years ago

NATO seeks new Afghan push from summit

<p>Coalition forces return fire during an engagement with Taliban in Farah Province, December 5, 2007. REUTERS/ U.S. Army/Sgt. Michael Zuk/Handout</p>

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s leaders want next week’s summit in Romania to resolve internal tensions over its mission in Afghanistan and commit more troops, signaling its willingness to stay the course there and defeat the Taliban.

Months of noisy infighting about troop levels, tactics and the refusal of some European allies to send soldiers into the fiercest fighting have overshadowed what alliance officials say is modest but real progress in security and reconstruction.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday he could come to the April 2-4 Bucharest meeting armed with an offer of more troops, as part of a wider move to bolster operations in the heartlands of a stubborn Taliban-led insurgency.

The scheduled presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is designed to show Afghan authorities are serious about tackling corruption and that the world body is ready to address deficits in its aid effort.

NATO allies are putting the final touches to a four-page “vision statement” aimed at bracing skeptical publics for the prospect of a continued Afghan presence -- with all the ensuing casualties and costs to national purses -- for years to come.

“This is going to take a consistent long-term international effort,” Canadian Defense Minister Peter Mackay, whose country has threatened to pull its troops out next year unless allies provide more support, told a conference in Brussels this month.

NATO’s move in 2003 to assume the U.N. mandate to provide security in Afghanistan, two years after the U.S.-led ousting of the Taliban, has thrust the 26-nation alliance into its toughest ground war in a Muslim land far from its Euro-Atlantic patch.

NATO officials now put the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at 47,000 -- nine times more than the 5,000-strong force of four years ago.

END TO THE FINGER-POINTING?

Yet the alliance remains entrenched in a bitter dispute between nations doing the bulk of the fighting and those in safer zones, with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates raising the prospect of a “two-tiered” alliance.

Sarkozy left open where he would commit any new troops. NATO sources said they understood the choice was between sending them to the Afghan south to support the Canadians or -- more likely -- to east Afghanistan by the Pakistan border.

That, combined with Poland’s announcement this month that it could add further troops, could allow some 1,000 U.S. Marines in that sector to be redeployed to the south and so avert the possibility of a damaging Canadian withdrawal.

But with countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain still reluctant to make major commitments to join the battle in the south, some analysts question whether NATO will be able to end the row over burden-sharing.

“You’re going to see some efforts to try and get around some of that finger-pointing in Bucharest,” said Julianne Smith, Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“(But) we still have a number of members inside the alliance that have failed to transform their military to cope with expeditionary operations,” she said.

RUSSIAN PACT

Last year saw record violence in Afghanistan, with nearly 6,000 killed -- a third of them civilians. Alliance officials say insurgents are relying more on suicide bombers and roadside bombs because efforts to take on ISAF directly have failed.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hopes to seal a pact with President Vladimir Putin -- a summit guest -- for NATO troop and equipment transit routes via Russia to Afghanistan, plus more cooperation on tackling the Afghan narcotics trade.

With NATO keen to stress its long-term commitment to the country, there is no public talk of any date by which the alliance could start winding down its force and handing over operations to Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces.

A U.S. document obtained by Reuters, with ideas for a “strategic vision statement” on Afghanistan to be unveiled at the summit, proposed a five-year plan with benchmarks such as completing the training of a 70,000-strong Afghan army and an 82,000-strong police force.

“The time of the (NATO) commitment will directly depend on the amount of support we get to grow our national security forces,” Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters in a videoconference from Kabul on Thursday.

Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington, editing by Mark Trevelyan

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