EDINBURGH (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday he was confident the alliance would agree to increase substantially the number of troops battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama is weighing several options for boosting U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan as a debate rages in his administration over whether to persist with a counter-insurgency strategy or to narrow it to a counter-terrorism drive against al Qaeda.
“In a few weeks, I expect we will decide, in NATO, on the approach, and troop levels needed, to take our mission forward,” Rasmussen told a meeting in Edinburgh of the NATO parliamentary assembly, which includes lawmakers from around the world.
“I‘m confident it will be a counter-insurgency approach, with substantially more forces...,” he said, promising there would soon be a “new momentum” behind the NATO mission.
In an interview with Reuters later, Rasmussen said there was a broad consensus in support of the “general thrust” of the recommendations made by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal has recommended an increase of 40,000 troops. The options being considered by Obama range from dispatching 10,000 to about 40,000 extra troops, according to a U.S. official.
“It’s a bit premature to make final decisions on exact troop numbers but I feel quite confident we will see increased troop contributions to Afghanistan,” Rasmussen told Reuters.
“We are now in the final phase of intense consultations,” he said.
Asked if only the United States would send extra troops, he said: “I think all allies realize that if the Americans are going to increase the number of troops then other allies should follow suit.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call for allies to provide 5,000 more troops to help train Afghan forces was “a realistic figure,” Rasmussen said.
Skeptics in the Obama administration, such as Vice President Joe Biden, favor narrowing the counter-insurgency mission and concentrating more heavily on the counter-terrorism mission of pursuing al Qaeda targets in Pakistan and on the Afghan border.
But Rasmussen said he believed a broad counter-insurgency strategy was the only way forward.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, speaking at the same meeting, also backed that approach, saying Britain did not see a counter-insurgency effort as an alternative to counter-terrorism “but as the best means to achieve it.”
Nearly 68,000 U.S. and 40,000 allied troops are deployed in Afghanistan. Mounting casualties this year in some of the fiercest fighting since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001 have undermined public support for the war in some NATO countries, including Britain.
Rasmussen said he was confident NATO could start next year to hand over more security responsibility to Afghan forces, allowing the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) gradually to move into a support role.
But it was too early to say when the process of handing over control to Afghan forces could be completed, he told Reuters.
Rasmussen said he expected Afghan President Hamid Karzai, re-elected in a fraud-tainted vote, to set out a new contract with the Afghan people in his inauguration speech Thursday, including pledges to fight corruption and improve governance.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Dominic Evans