SEVILLE, Spain (Reuters) - The United States raised pressure on NATO allies on Thursday to rush more troops to Afghanistan to crush an expected Taliban offensive, saying the coming weeks would be key in battling the insurgency.
But despite Washington’s mounting impatience, European nations held back from making major commitments at the meeting of defense chiefs in the Spanish city of Seville, and Germany questioned whether more troops were the real priority.
New U.S. and British reinforcements mean the two allies will provide half a NATO Afghan force which has now swollen to some 35,000 troops, with their soldiers located predominantly in the Taliban’s southern heartlands and by the Pakistan border.
“I was very clear in saying that nations should fulfil all the commitments they have made and I hope they will do so quickly,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
“We have an opportunity this spring to significantly disrupt the increasing level (of violence) we have seen in recent years caused by the Taliban. I‘m optimistic this spring offensive will be ours,” he told a news conference.
U.S. General Bantz Craddock, who took over as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe in December, laid out plans that will require allies to deliver a further 2,500 troops ranging from special forces to logistics personnel, one alliance source said.
“If we don’t send more troops to Afghanistan, there is a risk we could fail,” Danish Defense Minister Soeren Gade, whose country has some 390 troops mainly in the south, told reporters.
Many European nations argue their armies are already stretched by NATO, U.N. and European Union missions around the world and say that committing to send more troops to Afghanistan would threaten fragile public support for the mission in Europe.
“The issue is not always talking about military resources but meshing security and reconstruction,” German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung told reporters of concerns that NATO must do more to boost often haphazard reconstruction work.
NATO is expecting Taliban insurgents to step up violence in coming weeks as snows melt and the weather gets warmer. The Islamic militant group over-ran the town of Musa Qala in the southern Helmand province last week and is threatening to step up suicide bomb attacks in coming weeks.
Spain, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Turkey have all ruled out reinforcements. Germany, which on Wednesday confirmed plans to send six reconnaissance jets to the south, has resisted calls to deploy any of its nearly 3,000 troops to the south.
NATO sources said Spain offered four drones and military training and equipment for around a battalion of Afghan troops, while Italy offer a transport plane and more drones. Lithuania promised special forces while separately the Czech parliament approved plans to set up a military hospital in Kabul.
“That does not mean we are there but we are doing relatively well and better than I considered possible two weeks ago,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference.
One U.S. official said there were clear differences between Washington and some allies on how to manage the conflict, with the United States insisting a greater effort on reconstruction should not be a precondition for sending more troops.
With more than 4,000 people killed in violence, last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban Islamist government in 2001.
Bush’s Republicans face elections in 2008 and his administration sees the next 12 months as a crunch time in which it must show voters it is getting the upper hand against insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Ben Harding