Saturday, October 24, 2009

NATO members support U.S. troop hike in Afghanistan

Defense ministers do not discuss numbers, but broadly support Gen. McChrystal's recommendation for a troop buildup. Some consider boosting their own contributions too, U.S. Defense chief Gates says.

By Julian E. Barnes
October 24, 2009
Reporting from Washington

America's NATO allies signaled broad support Friday for an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, adding to the momentum building for a substantial U.S. troop increase.

NATO defense ministers meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, endorsed the strategy put forward by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. The alliance rejected competing proposals to narrow the military mission to fighting the remnants of Al Qaeda.

They did not discuss specific troop levels, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said a number of allies indicated they were thinking about increasing their own military or civilian contributions.

"The only way to ensure that Afghanistan does not become once again a safe haven for terrorism is if it is made strong enough to resist the insurgency as well," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general. "In Afghanistan, you cannot separate counter-terrorism from counterinsurgency."

As the Obama administration reviews U.S. strategy, the NATO endorsement is likely to add impetus to McChrystal's request for a reported 40,000 additional troops to protect the Afghan people, shore up the government and counter Taliban militants.

It is unlikely that defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would have issued such an unambiguous endorsement of McChrystal's plan without at least the tacit approval of U.S. officials.

Gates attended the meeting and made no attempt to counter the move by the ministers to throw their backing behind McChrystal's recommendation. Gates is considered a supporter of the plan, but has avoided publicly discussing his views.

"I was in a listening mode," Gates said at a news conference. "We are here to consult."

The endorsement came at a time of increasing confidence among military and other government officials in Washington that the administration will agree to much of McChrystal's request. Showing that the administration has the support of allies would be crucial to President Obama's ability to make his case for a troop increase to the U.S. public.

Developments in Afghanistan's presidential election may clear another potential hurdle. President Hamid Karzai's acceptance of a runoff election could provide the Afghan government with the legitimacy experts say is essential to McChrystal's strategy.

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