SEVILLE, Spain – NATO defense ministers were under pressure Thursday to find more troops for the alliance mission in Afghanistan ahead of an expected surge in fighting with the Taliban when the snow melts this spring.
NATO’s new top commander, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, was presenting ministers with a plan to “rebalance” the force of 35,000, using the more mobile combat units in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan where combat is expected to be most intense.
Allied officials said Craddock was seeking around 1,500 extra combat troops in addition to reinforcements recently announced by the United States and Britain, which supply more than half the soldiers in the force.
However, several European nations have resisted pressure to send more units, especially to the provinces in the south and east. In particular, the reluctance of France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Turkey to provide more combat troops, has caused frustration among nations on the front lines.
“More countries should take responsibility,” said Danish Defense Minister Soeren Gade. “If we do not send more soldiers to Afghanistan there is a risk that we may fail.”
Denmark has 400 troops mostly serving in the dangerous south alongside the U.S., Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, Estonia, and non-NATO member Australia.
A senior U.S. defense official accompanying Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the meeting said the NATO-led force must launch its own offensive this spring to pre-empt an attack by the Taliban, adding the push could be key to defeating the rebels.
“We think the upcoming spring in Afghanistan is a pivotal moment in the conflict, and we’re encouraging the allies to do as much as they can, as soon as they can,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the planned discussions had not yet been presented to allies.
“The offensive should be our offensive. That’s the offensive we’ve been communicating to the allies,” the official said.
Washington decided last month to extend the tour of more than 3,000 of its soldiers and Britain plans deployment of 800 British combat troops to southern Afghanistan over the coming months.
Others have been less forthcoming.
Spain has said it will not add to its 550 troops in the west; Germany is expected to provide six Tornado reconnaissance jets, but not significantly augment its 3,000 troops in the north; the Italian government is struggling to secure parliamentary backing for finance needed to maintain a contingent of 1,950.
NATO’s top diplomat appealed for all to do more, warning it failure threaten alliance’s credibility.
“It is important that all nations participate because of course there is an element of solidarity in NATO,” Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said before the meeting. “You can’t send a few and (have) a number of allies do less.”
Some nations have floated the idea of deploying elements from NATO’s elite new response force, which was declared fully operational last year with over 20,000 troops. “If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it,” said Denmark’s Gade.
However others have been reluctant to commit the spearhead force to ongoing missions, saying it should be held in reserve for emergencies.
Despite the shortfalls, NATO officials are confident they will be able to inflict damage on the Taliban, who caught the alliance by surprise last year with strong military resistance in the south and a record number of suicide and roadside bombs.
“In 2007, NATO will have substantially more combat power on the ground, in particular in the south and in the east,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said this week.
Ministers underscored the importance of coordinating development aid with military operations to win local support and boost training for the Afghan army. Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attending part of the meeting.