New NATO chief wants more troops for Afghanistan

(www.latwp.com) вЂ" The new American commander of NATO presented a new list of military requirements for Afghanistan that included a request for more combat troops for the country's restive southern provinces.

U.S. officials said Army Gen. John Craddock, who took over as the alliance's supreme commander in December, drew up the revised requirements last week amid growing concerns that current forces are not sufficient to counter an expected spring offensive by the Taliban, reports Trend.

Craddock presented the list at a meeting of alliance defense ministers here.

According to a senior Pentagon official traveling with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to the meeting, Craddock's new ``statement of requirements'' is already about 90 percent filled by existing forces.

But a European official familiar with Craddock's plan said the remaining forces still needed about 2,000 additional combat troops and helicopters. The reinforcements would be used to increase forces in the south and for a stepped-up effort to interdict fighters and weapons crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

``A lot of it goes back to stuff that still hasn't been filled,'' said the senior Pentagon official. ``There is still a (troop) gap in the south, a battalion-sized theater reserve.'' A battalion consists of about 1,000 soldiers.

Craddock's requirements statement for Afghanistan was the first to be drawn up by NATO's military leadership in more than a year and is part of a renewed effort by the Bush administration to breathe additional life into the Afghan mission, now largely under alliance command.

Other than Britain, however, which recently committed to adding 800 troops to its current 5,200-man contingent in the south, several European officials appeared to be lukewarm to the idea of increasing force levels.

German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung told reporters here from his nation that he felt the alliance should be focusing on economic and reconstruction efforts.

``I do not think it is right to talk about more military means,'' Jung was quoted as saying. ``When the Russians were in Afghanistan, they had 100,000 troops and didn't win.''

In addition to more troops and helicopters, alliance officials said the new plan would move existing troops around the country to provide more forces in the south. Nearly all of the new troops in the south, however, would be provided by the U.S. and Britain.

In addition to Britain's additional troops, Gates has ordered a four-month extension for a brigade of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division and sped up the deployment of a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, giving the U.S. an additional 3,200 soldiers in the country. The changes would take U.S. troop levels to near 25,000, their highest levels ever.

Most U.S. forces are stationed in eastern Afghanistan, but the European official said Craddock is expected to take one battalion from the 82nd Airborne deployment and move it to the south to bolster British-led combat efforts. Craddock also is seeking an additional two battalions for the east to slow cross-border aid for Taliban-backed fighters coming from Pakistan, the official said.

NATO officials said Craddock's hope is to disrupt efforts by the Taliban, which was driven from power in Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001 but has shown signs of resurgence, so that any planned offensive will be stymied before it starts.

``The spring offensive should be our offensive,'' Gates said.

European allies have, in recent days, made additional commitments to the Afghan mission, including a German promise to send six Tornado reconnaissance planes, but U.S. officials remain concerned that some allied pledges remain unmet. Those concerns have filtered back to Washington, where members of Congress pressed Gates to get tougher with European allies over their troop commitments to Afghanistan.

``I hope that at this meeting we can talk in a very straightforward manner to our NATO allies that we need a lot more from them than we're getting,'' Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Gates at a hearing just days before the Defense secretary departed for Sevilla.

NATO officials said the alliance's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, shared the U.S.'s concerns and has joined the U.S. in calling on all allies to provide more forces and military equipment to the NATO mission.

Publicly, however, Gates and Scheffer insisted they were pleased with the European commitments, with Scheffer noting that since the NATO summit in November, about 5,000 new troops have been promised to the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO contingent is officially known. The bulk of those troops, however, are British and American.

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