January 29, 2008 / 11:19 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. at odds with NATO over troops for Afghanistan

<p>A U.S. soldier looks through a pair of binoculars on his rifle as he patrols the Jaji district of the southeastern Paktia province, near the Afghan-Pakistan border January 28, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will press its European NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan’s violent south in response to Canada’s call for reinforcements, but the Pentagon said it will not commit any more of its own forces there.

More than six years after the U.S.-led invasion, the issue of security in Afghanistan came to a head this week when Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened to pull out Canada’s 2,500 troops early next year unless NATO sent in more soldiers.

NATO said on Tuesday it shared Canada’s view of the need to bolster its peace operation but dismissed charges that allies were dragging their feet, noting a huge expansion since 2003.

The Taliban rulers were toppled by the invasion in late 2001 but the Islamist militants and their al Qaeda allies have made an explosive comeback in the last two years, slowing Afghanistan’s economic growth and reconstruction.

U.S. defense officials have also regularly complained about the unwillingness of European allies to dedicate more combat troops and equipment to Afghanistan.

“We’ve got a number of allies with us there,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. “Hopefully they can see to it to dig deeper and find additional forces.”

The resurgence of the militants comes despite the presence of 50,000 foreign troops under the command of NATO and the U.S. military, backed by partially Western-trained and equipped Afghan security forces now numbering more than 120,000.

The United States has 29,000 troops in Afghanistan and earlier this month ordered another 3,200 Marines to be deployed there. Morrell said 2,200 of those would be sent to the restive south, which includes Kandahar.

“That’s as much and as deep as we’re going at this point,” Morrell said, adding that the Pentagon was not considering an additional deployment following Canada’s call.

STRUGGLE TO COORDINATE

<p>U.S. soldier First Lieutenant Jim Fallon from the New York 82th Airborne division keeps watch during an aid distribution exercise by the Afghan government, in the Jaji district of the south-eastern Paktia province, near the Afghan-Pakistan border January 27, 2008. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood</p>

In Brussels, a NATO spokesman said the organization had a long-standing request for more troops in the south.

“We share the assessment that Afghanistan needs long-term support, including military support,” he said.

But he pointed out that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had quadrupled to more than 40,000 troops and “is now close to what our military believe is our full requirement.”

The Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, said Kabul expected its allies to help expand the quality and size of the nation’s security forces so they can take the lead against the militants and cut the burden on the international community.

“We are all in full agreement that the only sustainable way to secure this country in an enduring way is to enable the Afghans themselves to be able to defend this country against all external and internal threats,” Wardak said.

Overshadowed by concern over the conflict in Iraq, the Afghan reconstruction effort has suffered from underfunding, turf battles between rival agencies, corruption among officials and the resurgence of Taliban-led violence.

An international drive to better coordinate civilian operations with the NATO-led military campaign suffered a setback this week when British politician Paddy Ashdown pulled out of the running to be the United Nations’ “super envoy.”

The position seemed to be custom-made for Ashdown, the former international representative for Bosnia, skilled in post-war reconstruction.

But President Hamid Karzai’s move to veto him, ostensibly for fear he would wield too much power, sent Western officials back to the drawing board with no obvious alternative.

“Ashdown was the name,” said a Western diplomat in Brussels who works on Afghanistan. “The requirement for coordination is undiminished and yet the whole issue has become politicized. We still have this gaping hole.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week Ashdown would have done a “superb job” and reaffirmed American backing for a central coordinator in Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington, Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, Mark John in Brussels and Luke Baker in London; Writing by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Chris Wilson

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