European allies back strategy, but mainly with words, not troops
BRUSSELS - President Obama won flattering words but little solid firepower from European allies for his new Afghanistan strategy yesterday, as small countries pitched in small troop reinforcements but bigger armies held back.
The chief of NATO rallied behind Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more forces to Afghanistan, pledging 5,000 more from other NATO members. Poland was the biggest European ally to offer more forces - 600 combat-ready troops to beef up its existing 2,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan - in an apparent bid for more attention from a US administration sometimes seen as too removed from Europe’s concerns.
“This is not just America’s war,’’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said - yet in many capitals, including Paris and Berlin, the answer to Obama’s plea was “Let’s wait and see.’’
European countries are cool to sending more soldiers to a war that often looks unwinnable and supporting an Afghan government tainted by corruption and election fraud. Some leaders are looking to an international conference on Afghanistan in London next month before promising any more troops.
Much of the European reaction yesterday focused on the need for a political solution and to bolster Afghanistan’s own army and police. Some countries that committed no troops may later come up with police trainers or money for civilian projects.
The foreign ministers of 43 NATO nations and their allies in Afghanistan will meet late today to discuss the new strategy for Afghanistan and other issues. The NATO chief did not specify where the additional 5,000 alliance soldiers he pledged would come from or how many would be from Europe.
The US now has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, while other NATO members and allies collectively have 38,000. With the added reinforcements, the combined international force will grow to more than 140,000 soldiers. The Afghan army has about 94,000 troops, and is slated to expand to 134,000. The Afghan police number about 93,000.
They face an estimated 25,000 Taliban insurgents. In a statement, the Taliban said Obama’s plan was “no solution for the problems of Afghanistan’’ and would give the insurgents an opportunity “to increase their attacks and shake the American economy which is already facing crisis.’’
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, embraced Obama’s plan yesterday, calling it a balanced effort to achieve stability in the war-torn nation and praising the emphasis on strengthening Afghan institutions and security forces.
The top US commander in Afghanistan said yesterday that the Afghan government and its international partners should use the coming 18 months to convince the Taliban they can’t win and offer militants a way to quit the insurgency “with dignity.’’
General Stanley McChrystal said at the same time the US should support the Afghan government in a reintegration program to allow insurgents a way to return to society.
“If you look at the end of most civil wars and insurgencies, I think that everybody needs a chance to come back with dignity and respect and rejoin society. I think that will be important for us to look forward to,’’ he said.
McChrystal said he met yesterday with President Hamid Karzai for nearly an hour and described the Afghan leader’s reaction as “really positive.’’
At a forward operating base in Wardak province, west of Kabul, some of McChrystal’s troops said yesterday that Obama’s decision offered hope that they can start leaving in 18 months - if the reinforcements can build up the Afghan army to protect civilians against the Taliban.
“Obama talking to the American people and the world shows that we have much greater direction,’’ said Sergeant Major Andrew Spano of Northborough, Mass. “The train has been going down the track for some time, but this just gives us more guidelines.’’