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Friday, September 15, 2006

NATO renews call for Afghan reinforcements

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO nations faced renewed calls on Friday to supply extra troops for Afghanistan, with commanders stressing a Polish offer of 1,000 soldiers next year did not plug the shortfalls.

NATO's top commander of operations, James Jones, last week requested up to 2,500 extra troops to help combat fiercer-than-expected Taliban resistance in the south of the country before the onset of winter in coming weeks.

Warsaw said on Thursday it would send reinforcements as planned to east Afghanistan next February, but no nation has made firm commitments to deploy soldiers any earlier.

Jones pressed his call for more troops, attack helicopters and transport aircraft at a special meeting of NATO nations in Brussels on Friday, alliance sources said, but there was little optimism that offers would come in soon.

"We are more looking toward the NATO defense ministers meeting in Slovenia now," said one alliance official of talks planned for September 28-29.

Pressure is growing on Norway to spell out what it could offer after signs from Oslo last week it could provide troops, but government officials said no decision was expected before next week's meeting of NATO foreign ministers in New York.

"It's hard to say when it could take place, it will probably not be this week or next week," said Anne Lene Sandsten, head of communications at Norway's Foreign Ministry.

Norway's Deputy Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide said the NATO meeting should help detail a longer-term development plan for Afghanistan that could over time curb reliance on NATO troops.

"We need to work out how this process of development can be speeded up. Unless we are able to underpin wise political strategies and substantive economic policies ... no amount of troops will be successful," he told Reuters.

Asked about the potential time frame for sending more Norwegian troops, Eide said: "Not in the long-run, the crisis is in southern Afghanistan is now. Our position as a member of the alliance is to see what we could do to help."

Norway currently has 480 troops based in relatively calmer north Afghanistan, including an elite rapid reaction force.


NATO commanders not only seek more troops and equipment but also want allies to reduce the restrictions, known as caveats, on what each nation's forces can do on the ground.

That, for example, would allow the Polish battalion when it arrives to be used as a reserve force around the country and not just around its expected base in east Afghanistan.

Yet any such decision would be delicate for the Polish government, already under fire at home for its announcement on Thursday that it was sending more troops.

"Instead of helping Polish pensioners, teachers and nurses, we are sending our soldiers to a war. It's a scandal," Deputy Prime Minister Andrzej Lepper, leader of the leftist junior coalition Self-Defense party, told reporters.

"Poland cannot afford such a commitment," he said of a deployment that Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said would cost 300 million zlotys ($96 million).

Alliance sources say NATO is looking into whether it could help Poland finance the cost of the deployment, partly in order to get the troops on the ground more quickly.

British, Dutch and Canadian soldiers are leading an alliance push into the violent south of Afghanistan which they say has claimed the lives of more than 500 Taliban -- a figure the Islamist guerrilla group disputes.

NATO troops have taken almost daily casualties but alliance diplomats and military sources insist their Operation Medusa, an offensive in the Kandahar region, is making real progress and could be complete in a matter of days.

"Jones told the NATO ambassadors this operation is a real success. It should be possible to move imminently to the reconstruction phase," said an alliance source at the talks in Brussels.
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