BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan still falls short of commitments, U.S. commanders said on Thursday, concerned that fewer reinforcements could threaten the already precarious security situation in the country.
At a meeting of NATO defence ministers, commanders said that nearly three months after President Donald Trump announced his “South Asia strategy,” the promised troop numbers do expand the NATO training presence but not by as much as hoped.
“We have made it very clear to the allies that we really need their help in filling these billets that we have identified,” said General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and head of the NATO training mission.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that NATO allies and the United States would split the burden of providing some 3,000 more troops, an increase that would take NATO’s training mission to about 16,000 troops.
Two diplomats said that at this stage, the United States is likely to provide 2,800 troops, while non-U.S. NATO allies and partners will send an additional 700 troops, potentially making up a 3,500-strong personnel increase.
Germany, one of the main European troop contributors, said it was not increasing its contribution for next year, which German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen defended.
“The commitments received so far are sufficient. We will not reach the total troop level, but to a high degree,” Von der Leyen told reporters.
European NATO’s focus has partly shifted to deterring Russia on its eastern flank, diplomats said, after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 helped take East-West ties to post-Cold War lows.
Nicholson said he was concerned that the United States would be put in a position where it would have to fill the shortfall.
“Right now my plan is to have U.S. forces focused on the things that only U.S. forces can do, so I would not like to have to divert U.S. forces to do things that allies can perform,” Nicholson said.
Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months, 16 years after the United States invaded to topple the Islamist Taliban government that gave al Qaeda the sanctuary where it plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“We fought ... at the lowest year level of capability that we have ever had in the 16 years. So it was the lowest level of capability and the highest level of risk we have faced in this time,” Nicholson said.
Before the ministers’ meeting, U.S. officials said about 80 percent of the troop commitments had been met by the allies.
U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that about two dozen countries had signalled their intent to increase their troop commitment, but declined to publicly give concrete numbers.
“I don’t give the enemy information they can use to their advantage,” he told a news conference.
Officials said there was a 10 percent shortfall even after the NATO meeting.
According to U.S. estimates, about 43 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are either under Taliban control or being contested.
One area in particular where there was a need for NATO troops was in training Afghan soldiers and police officers.
A total of 2,531 Afghan security forces were killed and 4,238 wounded in the first four months of the year, according to figures in a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), a U.S. Congressional watchdog.
“I am most concerned about police training in particular, because we are trying as part of this four-year road map to get the police out of paramilitary policing and (into) civilian policing,” Nicholson said.
The four-star general said that while contractors could potentially be used to fill the gaps, ideally it would be filled by NATO members. A recent report published by SIGAR said that tens of billions of dollars could be wasted unless changes are made in the training of Afghan security forces.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the conditions in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through next year, even with a modest increase in military assistance from America and its allies.
Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen; Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich