NATO chief to US: Not running from Afghan fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The new head of NATO sought to ease American doubts about allies’ commitment to the stalled Afghan war yesterday but cautioned that European states would prefer to send more trainers than combat troops.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in his first major US address as secretary-general, said fading public opinion meant it was all the more urgent to show there was “light at the end of the tunnel” by training Afghan forces for a gradual handover.

“We should expand our training mission. I consider it easier for European countries to contribute to our training mission with personnel as well as with finances, than with combat troops,” he said, answering questions from an audience at the Atlantic Council, a public policy group in Washington.

Rasmussen’s comments came on the same day as European defense ministers, meeting informally in Sweden, expressed reluctance to send a significant number of reinforcements.

“If you look at Europe, I don’t hear any voices saying we have an additional five or ten thousand soldiers to send to Afghanistan,” said Danish Defense Minister Soren Gade.

The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has warned the Afghan effort will likely result in failure without more troops. He is expected to seek 30,000 to 40,000 combat troops and trainers, according to defense and congressional officials.

European allies are not expected to offer any significant increase in trainers or troops unless the United States takes the lead.

But US President Barack Obama, who is also working to reduce the US military presence in Iraq, has said he will not decide on further reinforcements for Afghanistan until after a broad review of strategy.

Senator John Kerry, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an Obama ally, urged against committing more troops without clear goals or a timeframe. “Otherwise, we risk bringing our troops home from a mission unachieved or poorly conceived,” Kerry said in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal published yesterday.  Rasmussen, who meets Obama today, told reporters it was premature to discuss McChrystal’s request for additional troops, saying that issue was best left “for another stage.”

The former prime minister of Denmark, who took over NATO’s top job last month, criticized those in the United States who belittle the contributions of allies.

In his speech, Rasmussen pointed to 9,000 additional non-U.S. troops who have joined the Afghan effort in the past 18 months, saying “the allies are not running from the fight, despite the conventional wisdom.”

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