Nato struggles to muster extra troops for Afghanistan

Nato generals today struggled to persuade allies to provide an extra 2,000 troops urgently sought by commanders caught unawares by the ferocity of Taliban resistance to the alliance push into southern Afghanistan.

Nato generals today struggled to persuade allies to provide an extra 2,000 troops urgently sought by commanders caught unawares by the ferocity of Taliban resistance to the alliance push into southern Afghanistan.

The alliance, created to defend Europe against Soviet attack, has been forced into the first major land battle in its 57-year history as Taliban insurgents defy a drive by 8,000 British-led Nato troops into the southern heartlands of Afghanistan’s Islamist former rulers.

Nato commanders acknowledge being surprised by the level of resistance. They called a conference at the alliance’s military headquarters in southern Belgium to try to muster reinforcements and extra air cover in an effort to crush the Taliban before they slip back to mountain hideaways for the winter.

Prime Minister Tony Blair urged other allies to support the mission.

“It is important that the whole of Nato regards this as their responsibility,” Blair said in London. “Nato is looking at what further requirements there are, and Nato and Nato countries have got a duty to respond to that.”

However, European allies, with thousands of troops already committed elsewhere in Afghanistan or in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo and most recently Lebanon, are wary of sending more to the battlefields of Kandahar and Helmand, where recent fighting has killed more than 30 Nato troops and hundreds of militants.

Nato’s top operational commander, US Gen James Jones, made the appeal for more troops last week, saying the force was about 15 per cent short of full strength.

He said Taliban forces had switched tactics and were launching conventional battles against Nato’s troops and their Afghan army allies in the south, rather than relying on hit-and-run attacks.

In response, Nato has gone on the offense with a campaign dubbed Operation Medusa, that began on September 2, to drive into Taliban strongholds.

Jones said the extra troops could help deliver a decisive blow to the Taliban in the region.

The Nato force in the south is led by Britain, which has about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan. It is backed by about 2,000 each from Canada, the Netherlands and United States and smaller contingents from Romania, Denmark and others.

Pressure has been mounting on other major allies to do more.

However, France and Italy have recently committed to taking lead roles in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon; Germany is already playing a leading peacekeeping role in northern Afghanistan with 2,600 troops and does not want them drawn into the southern fighting; and Turkey’s Chief of Staff Gen.

Yasar Buyukanit last week ruled out sending any combat troops to supplement the 900 Turkish soldiers helping with reconstruction in Kabul.

Military analysts say the increasing international commitments on overstretched European militaries mean Nato will find it hard to raise more troops.

“The signs are not particularly good for a rapid response,” said Timothy Garden of London’s Chatham House think tank. “This has been going on in different theatres for years and years now, really since 1999 in Kosovo, and all our militaries are getting pretty threadbare.”

Nato has bout 20,000 troops across Afghanistan, but most of them are committed to peacekeeping and reconstruction operations in Kabul and the relatively peaceful northern and western regions.

Nato commanders are frustrated that some governments won’t allow those troops to be moved into the southern combat zones.

They have taken heart from a strong performance from Afghan army troops and have expressed confidence that the Taliban will be unable to sustain such high casualty figures for long.

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