KRAKOW, Poland/ WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will put pressure this week on its NATO allies to increase their commitments to Afghanistan but is not optimistic of fresh pledges of troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered in 17,000 more troops to battle a worsening insurgency. He announced the move ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Krakow, Poland, Thursday and Friday, saying the troops were needed to “stabilize a deteriorating situation.”
But with international forces bogged down more than seven years after overthrowing the Taliban, Washington has struggled to persuade allies to commit more forces, and is not expecting substantial new pledges of combat troops from them in Krakow.
“We always go with the hope of being pleasantly surprised,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. “But I don’t think we go there with the expectation of additional forces for Afghanistan at this meeting.”
He said Washington’s message was that “more NATO support is needed” and Obama wanted at least to see more help for the civilian effort, which includes programs to push development and improved governance and the vital area of police training.
“We are obviously welcoming of that, if that is an easier pill to swallow,” Morrell said. “But we need more help to ensure that Afghanistan is a success.”
U.S. regional envoy Richard Holbrooke warned last week the threat posed by militancy in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan would be tougher to deal with than Iraq.
Obama said Afghanistan had not been given “the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.”
The U.S. troop increase will bring U.S. numbers in Afghanistan to around 55,000. Allies from 40 other mostly NATO countries have around 30,000 in total.
Morrell said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates would advise his fellow defense ministers on the progress of the Obama’s ongoing Afghan policy review, which is expected to stress the need for better police training, governance and development — aims the allies have been flagging for years.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said an immediate task was to start moving in temporary reinforcements for the August 20 presidential election and to strengthen the police force, which has been bearing the brunt of worsening violence.
NATO diplomats say up to 10,000 troops could be required specifically as election reinforcements and the European contribution could be the equivalent of two battle groups, or up to 3,000 men.
NATO officials said it was possible non-U.S. election reinforcements for the existing 55,000-strong NATO-led military operation could be detached for the first time from the multinational NATO Response Force (NRF).
While the 26 NATO states have agreed to this in principle, countries on NRF standby, which include Spain, Italy, France and Britain, would still have to agree to commit additional numbers.
“We need a clear idea of how we will meet the requirements,” one diplomat said. “The key thing for Krakow is that the ministers give the political impetus to get this right.”
Appathurai said one idea likely to be discussed would be for allies to provide more teams to train the Afghan army to free up U.S. trainers for the police. “We need the police to be more effective. They are an essential element of Afghan security.”
Allies will also discuss how to increase help for Pakistan, which alarmed NATO this week by cutting a deal with Islamist militants in a region bordering Afghanistan.
Stephen Flanagan of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said he did not expect many more European combat troops to be pledged, but said Turkey could provide more.
He noted that Obama discussed Afghanistan and Pakistan with Turkish leaders Monday and added: “They have a very large force that’s trained in counterinsurgency ... and see themselves as having interests in Central Asia.”
Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Brussels