- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

BRUSSELS — NATO officials yesterday put a brave face on renewed splits within the alliance over troop levels in Afghanistan, where more than 35,000 American and European soldiers are fighting Taliban forces.

Alliance spokesman James Appathurai said NATO has added 5,000 troops to the Afghan force since a November summit in Latvia, “with more trainers, transport planes and fighter aircraft.”

But not all those troops have yet arrived on the ground, creating jitters within NATO ahead of an expected spring push by a resurgent Taliban.

“Nations should fulfill all of the commitments they have made, and I hope they will do so promptly so that they can have some impact on the spring offensive in the next few months,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Seville, Spain, last week.

Even if all the troops arrive on time, NATO will need another 2,500 soldiers to serve in the south and east of the country, where the fighting is most intense, according to Gen. John Craddock, who took over as the alliance’s supreme commander in December.

Gen. Craddock has said he wants to deploy some of those troops along the porous Pakistani border to prevent Taliban forces from crossing back and forth.

U.S. forces helped then-rebel Northern Alliance forces to oust the Taliban in 2001. But the hard-line Islamist outfit has since regrouped and stepped up attacks against NATO and government forces.

Ahead of the Seville meeting, NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer pleaded with European allies to send more troops to the Central Asian state, where al Qaeda plotted its September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States.

“It is important that all nations participate because of course there is an element of solidarity in NATO,” he said. “You can’t send a few and [have] a number of allies do less.”

The Dutch diplomat’s words were echoed by Denmark’s Defense Minister Soeren Gade, who was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “More countries should take responsibility. … If we do not send more soldiers to Afghanistan there is a risk that we may fail.”

The finger-wagging reflects the frustration felt by a handful of countries that contribute the majority of troops to NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Out of the 35,460 soldiers serving in the country, 14,000 are from the United States, 5,200 from Britain, 3,000 from Germany, 2,500 from Canada, 2,200 from the Netherlands and 1,950 from Italy.

Thirty-one countries, including France with 1,000, Turkey with 800 and Spain with 550 soldiers, provide the remaining 7,000 troops.

There is also some resentment inside NATO over “caveats” placed by some countries restricting their soldiers from places where they are most likely to come into harm’s way.

Soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, Estonia, Denmark and non-alliance member Australia are stationed in the dangerous south and east of the country, while most German and Italian forces are in the relatively peaceful north.

“We have got to be careful we don’t create two alliances in one, where some nations are doing the fighting and others are doing the reconstruction,” said a diplomat based at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Riga, all alliance leaders agreed to make their troops available for NATO commanders in the event of an emergency, but other national restrictions remain on how troops operate in the field. “There are still caveats and we’d like them removed,” Mr. Appathurai said.

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