KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s NATO allies have met his offer of 30,000 extra troops with as many as 7,000 of their own, but while Washington will be grateful for those pledges they could add up to less than meets the eye.
While some countries are indeed sending extra troops, two of the most important allies, Canada and the Netherlands, could withdraw nearly as many in the next two years as the others are adding.
The U.S. force will grow to about 100,000 troops, tripling the size when Obama took office last year. The combined contribution of all the other allies in the 43-member NATO-led coalition will still hover around 40,000, about a quarter of them British.
And many of the remaining large allies, above all Germany, show no sign of lifting conditions that restrict their troops from being deployed in combat, meaning U.S. forces will have to be stretched to fight in areas meant to be under allies’ control.
Italy will increase its 2,800-strong force by 1,000, but the other additional numbers are being made up mainly from small contingents from smaller countries, who lack the same firepower and cohesion of a larger unit from a single big country.
The result will be a fighting force built much more around U.S. and British troops than before, similar in composition and size to the U.S.-led force that fought in Iraq, rather than the broader NATO-led operation previously seen in Afghanistan.
That may not in the end be a bad thing from a military perspective. Having the superpower do most of the fighting would make the force more effective and give it unity of command, after years in which separate NATO countries ran essentially separate wars in different provinces, said a European diplomat in Kabul.
“What was the main problem? It was that nobody was in charge. That has changed. Now we know whose war it is.”
But from a political perspective, it could grow more difficult for the Obama administration and Britain’s Gordon Brown to sell the war at home, and to persuade Afghans the mission has the support of a united international community.
Already, the United States and Britain have lost more troops in Afghanistan this year alone than all their allies combined over the entire 8-year-war.
Apart from the British and Americans, the 2,800-strong Canadian contingent in the south around Kandahar has been by far NATO’s most effective and battle-scarred fighting force.
Canada has lost 133 soldiers in Afghanistan — as many as France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain combined, countries that each have similar similar-sized contingents.
The war is deeply unpopular in Canada, where many have been angered at accusations troops turned over detainees to Afghan authorities who may have abused them, and Taliban gains in Kandahar made the mission look futile.
Parliament voted to bring combat troops home within two years, and Ottawa is balking at U.S. pressure to stay on longer.
“We have said many times, we will abide by the parliamentary motion. Our combat mission will end in 2011,” the Foreign Ministry’s top spokesman said.
Nothing that was pledged so far by other NATO allies in the wake of Obama’s announcement would be able to make up that lost Canadian capability, said Tim Ripley, an analyst for Jane’s Defence publications in Britain.
“It’s not just troops. They have drones, artillery, they participate in the headquarters,” he said.
“A joint force of half a dozen units of a couple hundred men each, from different countries, doesn’t provide the same cohesion and effectiveness in combat.”
The Netherlands are also giving up their leading role in Uruzgan, another southern province, where they have fought alongside Americans and Australians. NATO says some of the 2,100 Dutch troops will stay in other roles beyond 2010, but has not said how many.
Every bit as important as the numbers of troops are the conditions, known as “caveats”, some allies put on their forces, banning them from being deployed in areas where there has been fighting.
Washington has had some success in persuading countries to lift their caveats, notably France, which until last year operated only in the peaceful capital Kabul, but since then has allowed its 3,000 troops to fight under U.S. command.
French troops now play an important combat role, but Paris has so far balked at sending many more.
The big ally still holding out is Germany, which has the third largest force in the country with 4,400 troops, but has yet to lift strict rules about how they can be deployed.
The Germans operate in the north, an area quiet in the past but which this year has seen a surge in attacks and Taliban fighters move in and seize control of rural areas.
Washington has had to send extra troops to the north, mainly mobile special forces, to combat the Taliban while Germany shows little sign of lifting its restrictions to allow its troops to patrol hostile areas.
The German public has anguished over the conflict — which the government long refused to call a “war” — because of the country’s militaristic past.
The former defence minister was forced to quit the cabinet last week over a September air strike called in by German troops which killed dozens of civilians, the deadliest incident involving German forces since World War Two. Parliament has ordered an inquiry into the incident.
Although it still seems unlikely, persuading the Germans to lift the restrictions on their troops already in Afghanistan would achieve more than adding most of the extra troops NATO has offered, Ripley said.
“Getting 100 Finns or 80 Belgians doesn’t add up to much, whereas a few thousand Germans playing together is really something.”
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA; Editing by Jerry Norton)
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