The Bush administration has decided to tone down its appeals to NATO allies for more troops and other aid in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
After two days of talks here with his counterparts from Britain, Canada and five other NATO countries whose troops are doing the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan’s violent south, Gates said he would continue making the case for greater allied military assistance.
But he said he would be doing it differently, keeping in mind the “political realities” faced by some European governments whose people may see less reason to intervene in Afghanistan.
“We’re going to try to look at this more creatively than perhaps we have done in the past when we basically have just been hammering on (allied governments) to provide more,” Gates said in a post-meeting interview with a small group of reporters traveling with him from Washington.
He said there would be “brainstorming” for ideas on how to enable some NATO allies to contribute more. He cited, as an example, the possibility that an ally that has helicopters but insufficient resources to outfit them for the harsh environment of Afghanistan might get the money from another NATO country to upgrade the aircraft.
Gates has been pressing for months — without success so far — to get 16 more helicopters into southern Afghanistan to relieve a U.S. helicopter unit that will be leaving soon.
Police, ground troops needed
Gates also has pressed to fill other needs, including 3,500 NATO trainers for the Afghan police as well as a minimum of three battalions of ground troops. He said those gaps were discussed in Edinburgh but the countries represented here were not asked to contribute more, since they already are bearing the brunt of the military load, along with the United States.
He noted that the Dutch defense minister, Eimert van Middelkoop, told the meeting that his government has recommended to parliament that Dutch troops extend their service in Afghanistan another two years.
Britain has the largest foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan, other than the United States, with about 7,800. There are about 26,0000 U.S. troops there.
Asked whether the Bush administration was considering sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the event that the shortfalls are not bridged by NATO allies, Gates replied, “Not in the short term.”
Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who joined Gates at the conference, told reporters afterward that he and his counterparts agreed that the non-military part of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan also needs to be re-energized and improved.
“There was a strong sense that the civilian side, run by all of our governments and by the U.N., needs now to be elevated and expanded and be made as strategically purposeful as what we see on the military side,” Burns said.
3-5 year 'integrated plan' sought
Gates said the Edinburgh talks produced a consensus on the need to fashion an “integrated plan,” or strategic vision, for what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan within the next three to five years as well as specifics on how those things can be accomplished.
He said the United States would take the lead in developing this plan, which he hoped would be ready for endorsement by President Bush and the leaders of the other NATO governments at a summit meeting scheduled to be held in Bucharest, Romania, in early April.
“My purpose in proposing this in the first place was to get people to look beyond the end of 2008, and to try to lift their sights and recognize that this is a longer-term endeavor,” he said.
Asked what he foresaw as the state of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan five years from now, Gates said he expected it would extend beyond that, but in smaller numbers than today.
Gates also offered unusually detailed comments about an effort being pursued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to split some Taliban leaders off from the radical organization and reconcile them with the central government. He said this was not a U.S. military effort, but he spoke of the program in terms that suggested at least an American advisory role.
“There has been an interest in seeing if we can strengthen our interactions at the provincial and local levels,” while still working mainly with the central government, he said.
“The worry that we have and the care that we would have to take that we have not faced in Iraq is, we don’t want to re-empower warlords and we don’t want to create independent militias,” he added. He then emphasized that this was a Karzai effort and that the Afghan president is setting limits such as barring al-Qaida members from the reconciliation move.
“What we are interested in is: Can we detach local areas and perhaps even some Taliban leaders from the insurgency and get them to reconcile with the government?” he said.