* Europe set against further troops for Afghanistan
* Only commitment would be for Afghan training
By Luke Baker
LONDON, Sept 21 (Reuters) - The United States looks ready to ask allies for more troops for Afghanistan, but Europe won’t make any significant further contributions unless they are part of a clear plan for training Afghan security forces.
A leaked extract of an assessment by the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, published by the Washington Post on Monday, made clear that additional forces and a new strategy are needed to defeat the resurgent Taliban. [nN21276055]
The leak, which McChrystal’s spokesman confirmed was genuine, did not specify how many soldiers the general would need or for what tasks, but U.S. officials have said he is likely to ask for around 30,000 more combat troops and trainers when he sets out the requirements in the coming weeks.
McChrystal currently commands 100,000 Western troops, two thirds of them American, fighting to regain the initiative in their stalled, eight-year conflict with the Taliban.
"Inadequate resources will likely result in failure," the general is quoted as saying. "However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced." [ID:nSP237856]
More than 40 countries — from Singapore to Iceland — have sent forces to the war under the NATO banner, with Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Poland the largest European contributors, providing 21,000 troops all together.
They are also the chief candidates likely to be identified by Washington to stump up more guns and boots on the ground.
But with public opinion turning sharply against the war, combat deaths rising and the strategy unclear eight years since the Taliban was overthrown, getting any of them to show a deeper combat commitment is going to be an extremely tall order.
"If it’s more troops for combat, then there’s not going to be much willingness," said Colonel Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"If the request is for more troops to run training for Afghan national security forces, then I think there is a possibility that some countries will step forward."
Britain has a little over 9,000 troops in the country, nearly all of them deployed to Helmand, a province in the south where fighting has been intense. The country has lost 216 troops since 2001, a higher death toll than in the Iraq war.
While army commanders have indicated they would like more forces, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is reluctant to commit further, especially with the strategy cloudy and with the results of Afghanistan’s presidential election still in doubt.
Instead, Brown has repeatedly emphasised the need to "Afghanistanise" the conflict — training more Afghan soldiers and police to take on the task of providing national security.
That is a view broadly backed by Germany and France, who have around 4,000 and 3,200 troops on the ground respectively. Opinion polls in both France, which has lost 31 soldiers, and Germany (35 dead), are also increasingly set against the war.
"We are entering a new phase after the presidential election in which there will now be a transfer strategy," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on NDR radio. "Ultimately the Afghan forces will take responsibility for security."
Germany, Britain and France are planning a conference later this year or early next on Afghanistan, with the emphasis expected to be on "troops for training" and more regional assistance — from India, Russia, China and central Asia.
The conference, which is expected to include the United Nations and Italy, may end up generating a distinct European "direction" for the war, some analysts say.
The goal — laid out by McChrystal — is to double the Afghan security forces to around 400,000. That will require a huge training effort and one the United States would probably want to lead, as it has done in Iraq, not leave to Europe.
THERE, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
While there may be a reluctance in Europe to commit further to Afghanistan — most national polls put public discontent with the war at around 55-60 percent — there are no signs at this stage that any major countries are going to pull out.
Italy was dealt a deep shock last week when six troops were killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul. But the country remains broadly committed, even if there are doubts about the supposed peace-keeping role of its 2,800 troops deployed there.
"We need to open a debate in parliament, to discuss this seriously," said Antonio Di Pietro, an opposition senator. "There is war there, not peace. We can’t go there and make people think we are giving out candy and chocolate."
With the weight of U.S. expectation — and President Barack Obama’s goodwill — upon them, individual European nations may find it hard to turn any request from Washington down. But acting with one voice, such a rejection may be easier.
Germany, six days away from an election, looks particularly firm in its own mind about not sending more troops.
"Most politicians are trying not to mention it," said Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "They know you cannot win votes with it, you can only win votes with populist methods like saying ‘everyone out of Afghanistan’." (Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris, Madeline Chambers and Sarah Marsh in Berlin, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Phil Pullella in Rome)