NATO allies offer 7,000 extra troops for Afghan war
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Twenty-five NATO allies promised on Friday to send about 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan, backing U.S. President Barack Obama's new war strategy and reinforcing efforts to defeat the Taliban.
The extra commitment fell short of the 10,000 troops Pentagon officials had originally hoped for and did not account for some 4,900 Dutch and Canadian troops already due to leave the field in 2010 and 2011.
After a day of meetings to sell Obama's new strategy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was pleased with "significant contributions" of both combat troops and trainers, which Washington hopes will allow Afghan forces to begin taking over security responsibility by mid-2011.
"This is a crucial test for NATO which has been the greatest and most successful military alliance in history," Clinton told a news conference, thanking NATO members for their contribution.
The White House welcomed NATO's announcement, saying in a statement, "These new commitments demonstrate strong support for President Obama's decision on Afghanistan and Pakistan and the firm resolve of NATO allies and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) partners to succeed in our shared mission."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said more countries could join the 25 promising to contribute new troops in the next few months.
On a visit to Washington, Hungarian Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai said Budapest would add 200 soldiers to the 340 troops it already had in Afghanistan working in reconstruction and training.
Despite the headline figure of 7,000 extra forces announced by Rasmussen, a breakdown of the numbers provided by NATO sources showed pledges for only 5,500 troops, with 1,500 more to be confirmed later.
Of the 5,500, at least 1,500 are already in the country and will not now be withdrawn as planned, NATO sources said.
The Canadian and Dutch withdrawals, which will see some of the most battle-hardened forces leave, will also dent the non-U.S. contribution, U.S. officials conceded.
The move follows Obama's decision on Tuesday to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, an attempt to turn the tide in the eight-year war.
Rasmussen said the extra troops, which would raise the total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to around 140,000, would help to tackle the insurgency, but would not be enough to defeat it alone. "There are no silver bullets, no magic solutions."
"It will still take more time, more commitment and more patience to reach our shared goal," he said.
MORE TRAINERS NEEDED
Rasmussen laid out what he called a new road map for NATO operations, involving more soldiers, more aid and more training for Afghan security forces, as well as efforts to reintegrate Taliban fighters who agree to lay down their arms.
Even with the extra manpower, the NATO alliance faces a struggle to coordinate its efforts and regain the upper hand against an insurgency that has expanded into previously stable regions of Afghanistan and built strongholds inside Pakistan.
France and Germany appear more willing to send trainers than combat troops but have said they will only take a decision on any further commitment after a conference on Afghanistan to be held in London on January 28.
NATO still needs more than 200 extra police and military training teams to boost Afghan forces so they can eventually take over security and allow foreign forces to withdraw.
Clinton suggested the United States believed at least some of those trainers could also help fight on the ground.
"Training is not only about the beginning of military preparation," she said. "It also includes partnering those troops, mentoring those troops, and going into combat with those troops."
But she reassured allies their commitment would not need to be open-ended.
"The need for additional forces is urgent, but their presence will not be indefinite," she said, noting Obama's timeline called for Afghans to begin taking over in July 2011.
"At that time, we will begin to transfer authority and responsibility to Afghan security forces, removing combat forces from Afghanistan over time with the assurance that Afghanistan's future, and ours, is secure," Clinton said.
U.S. officials have been scrambling to back away from suggestions that mid-2011 has been set as a firm date for the start of a troop withdrawal, even if some of the extra U.S. troops being sent could start to pull out by then.
Rasmussen said any withdrawal should not be seen as the international coalition abandoning the country.
"Transition doesn't mean exit," he said. "There should be no misunderstanding: we are not going to leave Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of terrorists and the extremists who host them. It will not happen."