- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

NATO allies failed to answer Washington’s call to commit more troops to the escalating battle with Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan yesterday, prompting the Bush administration to rethink its diplomatic strategy ahead of two meetings of alliance ministers later this month.

U.S. officials said they still hoped that countries would come forward, noting that some interest in providing forces was expressed at the Brussels session, but they also indicated that they would target specific NATO members with capabilities to step up to the task.

“We have some thoughts in mind of countries that might contribute additional forces,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “We are going to be having those conversations, obviously, in coordination with the NATO leadership.”

Yesterday’s urgent meeting at the alliance’s headquarters in the Belgian capital was called after NATO commanders issued an appeal last week for up to 2,500 extra troops in southern Afghanistan in the face of surprisingly strong Taliban resistance.

However, “no formal offers were made at the table,” said NATO spokesman James Appathurai, even though there were some “positive indications” from several members, which he did not name.

Victoria Nuland, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Washington wants “to have more punch” in the Afghan mission “no later than the beginning of October, because this is an essential season before the cold comes in Afghanistan.”

But NATO officials said it is not likely that a decision about an expanded force will be made before the end of September, when alliance defense ministers are scheduled to meet in Slovenia, one of the newest members.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to host a meeting of fellow foreign ministers in New York during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session next week, and U.S. officials said they plan to use the occasion for aggressive diplomacy.

There are about 18,500 NATO troops currently in Afghanistan, but most of them operate in the capital, Kabul, and other regions, rather than in the troublesome south. The force there is led by Britain, which has about 4,500 troops in the entire country. The United States, Canada and the Netherlands have about 2,000 each, while Romania, Denmark and others have smaller contingents.

About 30 NATO soldiers have been killed since the alliance took over the force in Afghanistan earlier this summer.

“It is important that the whole of NATO regards this as their responsibility,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday. “NATO is looking at what further requirements there are, and NATO and NATO countries have got a duty to respond to that.”

But many European governments have said that their forces are stretched too thin with their current deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Ivory Coast, Congo and the Balkans.

The German Defense Ministry on Tuesday ruled out sending troops to southern Afghanistan, saying that its existing deployment of 2,900 troops in the country’s north has taken it close to a limit of 3,000 set by parliament.

Spain, France and Italy already have contingents in western Afghanistan and in Kabul, and recently committed troops to the expanded U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Turkey has ruled out sending any reinforcements.

NATO said yesterday that 173 persons, including 151 Afghan civilians, have been killed in suicide bombings across the country so far this year. At least 50 persons were killed yesterday in widespread violence.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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