President Bush will seek fresh troops and equipment for the fight in , and fewer restrictions on how they can be used, when he sits down this week with NATO allies to review the state of the dangerous mission there, according to senior U.S. officials.
Bush flew Monday to this scenic capital, on his way to a summit of NATO's leaders in Riga, Latvia, that begins Tuesday. There, U.S. officials say, they are hoping allies will renew their commitments in Afghanistan, where a stepped-up Taliban insurgency is posing stiff new challenges for some 33,000 NATO troops, about a third of them American.
The mission is shaping up as the major issue for discussion among Bush and the leaders of the 25 other NATO member countries, who are gathering for the first time in two years. A failed operation in Afghanistan would threaten NATO's ambition to one day play a more robust role in helping address the world's crises.
Briefing reporters on Air Force One on the way to Estonia, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley cited "an increasing awareness at how important this is for the war on terror, how important it is for Afghanistan and how important it is for NATO not to fail."
Some key NATO countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have placed sharp limits on how their troops can be used, to the growing consternation of the United States and other countries whose forces are involved in fierce battles with the Taliban in southern parts of Afghanistan. Only the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have combat troops in the south.
Meanwhile, calls for more troops from NATO commanders have faced resistance from member countries, some of which have seen public support for the mission wane as casualties have increased. On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a Canadian armored vehicle in the south, killing two soldiers and bringing to 44 the number of Canadian troops killed in the country.
"Events in Afghanistan are reaching a critical juncture, and European politics and perceptions, as well as U.S. commitments in Iraq, may prevent NATO from getting the assets necessary to ensure victory," said retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the former U.S. supreme allied commander in Europe, at a briefing held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
U.S. officials say they hope the summit will help focus attention on the needs of the mission in Afghanistan, which they say include not only greater military assistance but also economic and political reconstruction efforts.
NATO military spokesmen in Kabul said they will seek to review the issue of troop restrictions, or "caveats," in the hopes that some personnel already stationed in the country might take on broader roles or be able to shift from one sector to another if needed. "If the caveats can be reduced, that is essentially the same as adding new troops, because it frees up troops that are here," said Maj. Luke Knittig, chief NATO spokesman in Kabul.
Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters of the "hard price" being paid by Canada as he sought to explain the need for more flexibility for NATO commanders.
"A country like Canada, and the Netherlands, has every right to expect that their allies are at their back, which means if they get into trouble, they can count on support from all of NATO," Fried said last week.
Privately, U.S. officials are playing down the prospects of any breakthrough this week. In Germany, where public opinion seems strong against lifting restrictions that keep troops in the safer northern areas, Chancellor Angela Merkel last week reiterated her determination to keep them from moving south. U.S. officials remained hopeful, however, that Merkel could continue to frame the debate to allow for some loosening of restrictions in the future.
The United States provides the largest number of NATO troops, with 11,800. Second is Britain, with 6,000; third is Germany, with 2,700; then Canada, with 2,500; followed by the Netherlands, Italy, France, Romania, Spain and Turkey. The United States also has several thousand troops who operate in Afghanistan outside the NATO umbrella.
In 2002 and 2003, NATO troops were confined to Kabul as the International Security Assistance Force. Over the past three years, the mission has been gradually extended to the entire country, with NATO troops moving into the east just last month.
In the past six months, NATO and U.S. troops have faced an unexpectedly aggressive insurgency by the revived Taliban militia. Officials report that attacks have increased fourfold since a year ago, reaching 600 a month, and that between 3,700 and 4,000 people have died in insurgent-related violence this year. The insurgents have also begun using suicide bombs, a new phenomenon for Afghanistan.
NATO commanders in Afghanistan have repeatedly asked for more troops and equipment. So far, only Poland has responded, pledging to send 1,000 troops in the new year.
The central message NATO commanders hope to deliver in Riga is "to put more in focus why we are here in Afghanistan," said Knittig, noting the country's importance in the wars against terrorism and drugs, and in the future security of NATO states. "We need to punch that message through."
Some European diplomats in Kabul expressed disappointment with the reluctance of NATO countries to send more troops and equipment.
"Some countries in Europe need to be reminded that Afghanistan is not just a faraway place we know little about," said Francesc Vendrell, the senior European Union representative in Kabul. "It is a country that is central to the security interests of the West. If Afghanistan were to collapse or the Taliban were to take over, the leaders would probably form close relations with al-Qaeda."
Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels, said there is a gap between NATO's expressed desire to play a more active role in addressing world crises and its members' will to do so. "In the Cold War, no one would have dared to put a caveat on how their forces are used at the front lines," he said. "People don't really believe in their hearts that they need to take the big risks to succeed."
But U.S. officials said the mission in Afghanistan is succeeding. "When you take a look at it, obviously NATO was challenged by the Taliban when they moved into the south," said Judy Ansley, the senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council staff. "But NATO has responded very strongly. They've stood and they've fought, and have been very successful against the Taliban. So I don't see Afghanistan as being a mission in trouble or someplace where we have a problem."
Constable reported from Kabul.