Afghan War Troop Levels Strain NATO Alliance

A first round of talks among NATO defense ministers this week in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius yielded no formal offers of troops.

All 26 NATO nations have soldiers in Afghanistan and all agree the mission is their top priority. But the refusal of European allies to send more combat troops is forcing an already stretched U.S. military — largely focused on the Iraq war — to fill the gap, and it is straining the alliance.

Canada has sought more support for its 2,500 troops stationed in the restive southern Kandahar province. Defense Minister Peter MacKay said Thursday in Vilnius that Ottawa’s demand that an extra 1,000 NATO troops join Canadian forces was not a matter for negotiations.

Canada’s parliament will vote next month on whether to prolong its combat mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009 in a ballot that could trigger a snap general election.

In Paris, a spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy said France was considering sending more troops to Afghanistan, but did not confirm French media reports that some 700 paratroopers could be deployed to the south.

Germany said it would send around 200 combat soldiers to northern Afghanistan as part of a NATO Quick Reaction Force to relieve a Norwegian unit but would not move troops to the south.

“I think we are doing our bit fully in Afghanistan,” said Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, according to Reuters. He noted Germany’s 3,000-plus contingent was the third largest in Afghanistan.

In a show of unity, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced trip to Kabul and Kandahar with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband so they could get a firsthand look at the front lines of the NATO-led fight as they lead an effort to boost the number of NATO combat forces in the country.

The stop in Kandahar was a rare side trip outside the Afghan capital by the top U.S. and British diplomats to meet with international forces facing a resurgent Taliban.

Rice said the brief unannounced visit was not an attempt to show up European nations that have refused to send fighting troops to Kandahar and other southern regions.

“It’s just the rationale of being able to get outside of Kabul and see one of the areas that’s been very active,” she said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, standing beside Rice at a news conference, also defended his leadership, saying the economy and education systems have improved under his watch and there are more democratic freedoms under a new constitution.

“Afghanistan, if given more attention, would be very, very glad and thankful but it is not right that Afghanistan has been forgotten,” said Karzai, responding to a recent independent report, which said the country is in danger of becoming a failed state.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid bare U.S. concern about NATO on Wednesday when he said the alliance could split into countries that were willing to “fight and die to protect people’s security and those who were not.”

But Gates also said he doesn’t think the alliance is at a point of risking failure in the country.

“I don’t think that there’s a crisis, that there’s a risk of failure,” Gates said during a news conference in Vilnius, the Associated Press reported. He said, however, that strengthening the fighting force there would help speed the defeat of the Taliban militants

Gates noted that despite security setbacks, the country has made gains on the civil side of things, improving the daily lives of Afghans.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged more forces were needed to combat mounting Taliban and al-Qaida violence but dismissed Gates’ fears that NATO could become a “two-tiered alliance” based on a country’s willingness to fight.

“I do not see a two-tier alliance, there is one alliance,” de Hoop Scheffer told reporters as he arrived in Vilnius, where Gates met 25 other NATO defense ministers.

He renewed an appeal for countries to reserve requests for reinforcements for closed-door discussions. “Usually we do not do that in public,” he said.

The NATO-led ISAF force has about 43,000 troops in Afghanistan. Canada, Britain, the United States and the Netherlands are involved in most of the fierce fighting in the south.