NATO seeks Afghan reinforcements

Posted in NATO | 08-Sep-06 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

A British soldier from the NATO-led international forces keeps watch in the southern city of Kandahar September 3, 2006.
BERLIN NATO's top commander said Thursday that alliance members were refusing to provide equipment and troops pledged months ago for the mission in southern Afghanistan.

Discarding diplomatic caution, the commander, General James Jones, said in a telephone interview that he could not understand why NATO countries were delaying when the alliance was in sustained combat with Taliban insurgents. NATO moved into the volatile south in July.

Jones, a four-star general and a former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said that he had repeatedly asked member states to "make good" on promises to provide additional helicopters, transport planes and troops.

"I am asking for the forces we asked for 18 months ago," Jones said. "It is not that we are making new demands. We have generated about 85 percent of the force that is required. In view of the hostilities that are going on, especially in the southern region, the commander on the ground said if he had the full kit he would be in very, very good shape."

He was referring to the senior alliance officer, Lieutenant General David Richards of Britain.

Asked which of the 26 NATO countries were dragging their feet, Jones hesitated and then replied: "All of them."

Jones said that as recently as Aug. 25 he had asked "for the remainder of equipment and manpower needed to bring it up to the 100 percent mark."

He added: "We received no offers."

Jones gave no specific figures on the number of troops and amounts of materiel that have not been provided.

"People are dying," he said. "Soldiers are fighting, and so 85 percent in a peaceful situation may be O.K., but in a situation involving combat, that is another matter."

During the weeks leading up to NATO's deployment in the south, Jones had repeatedly warned that the alliance would face strong resistance from insurgents and drug lords.

"For the first time, their power is being challenged and they will do everything possible to intimidate the NATO forces," he said.

The mission in southern Afghanistan has proved the toughest for NATO since it assumed the command of the International Security Assistance Force three years ago.

Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have taken lead roles in the south, supplying about 8,000 troops

For the first time in its 57-year history, the alliance has been involved in sustained combat and suffered significant casualties.

At least 35 British and Canadian soldiers have died in the last seven weeks. Nineteen British soldiers died last week alone - 14 when their transport helicopter crashed and 4 in fighting with Taliban forces.

Five Canadian soldiers taking part in Operation Medusa were killed over the past five days. Four died in clashes with Taliban fighters, and one was killed by U.S. planes on a strafing run.

There have, however, been recent successes. NATO troops earlier this week surrounded a force of 700 Taliban fighters southwest of Kandahar. The Afghan Defense Ministry said 200 insurgents were killed, including 4 commanders.

Jones said NATO needed manpower, transport helicopters and the heavy aircraft required to move troops and materiel.

He also said that NATO commanders around Kandahar, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since July, wanted NATO countries to be more flexible so that reinforcements could be sent quickly from other parts of the country to trouble spots such as the south.

"It will help us to reduce casualties and bring this to a successful conclusion in a short period of time," said Jones, who ends his tour of duty later this year as NATO chief and commander of the U.S. forces in Europe.

Britain commands the 8,000-strong NATO force in southern Afghanistan where it is supported by Canadian and Dutch troops. But more than 12,000 NATO troops are based in the northern and western parts of the country, as well as the capital, Kabul.

In most cases, the troops are organized around "provincial reconstruction teams." These were established to extend the authority of President Hamid Karzai's government outside Kabul, as well as provide protection and security to reconstruction efforts.

Such a request for more flexibility could run into problems from the national parliaments, including Hungary and Germany. The parliaments have the final say on the deployment of their countries' troops, as well as the mandate.

Colonel Brett Boudreau, a spokesman for NATO's military committee, said: "There are often political and constitutional restrictions imposed by governments over where their troops in Afghanistan can be sent. That is one reason why the NATO mission in Afghanistan is so complex and challenging."

Germany for instance, has most of its 2,000 troops based in the comparatively peaceful northern province of Kunduz. Even if the German government wanted to support Operation Medusa, it would require parliamentary action.

James Appathurai, another NATO spokesman, said Jones would raise the issue of reinforcements with defense officials from all the member states at a meeting in Warsaw this weekend.

"Jones will ask about upping the overall level of forces in the country," Appathurai said. "This meeting will also consider what is required to make the mission a success."

By having access to more troops, Jones said, he was confident that "in the relatively near future, certainly before the winter, we will see this decisive moment in the region turn in favor of the troops that represent the government." He admitted, however, that he had been surprised by the intensity of the fighting by Taliban forces.