Monday, April 6, 2009

Nato summit: the truth behind the troops heading to Afghanistan - Times

The great jumble sale of troop offers made by Nato countries at the summit in Strasbourg to provide security during the election period in Afghanistan was beginning to unravel over the weekend as military chiefs tried to add up the numbers pledged.

President Barack Obama said he was satisfied that a total of 5,000 troops and trainers had been offered, although he made a point of saying he saw the offers as only a “down payment”, indicating he still wanted pledges of long-term troop deployments, not just temporary units for the election force. But there were no offers of extra permanent troops.

Washington claimed the total of 5,000 extra military personnel that emerged from the final day of the two-day Nato summit consisted of 3,000 combat troops for the election, 1,400-2,000 from 11 countries to be formed into 70 operational mentoring liason teams to train the Afghan National Army and 300 paramilitary mentors and trainers, led by the French, to assist the Afghan National Police. The offers came at the last moment in the summit as a result of what David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, called “the Obama effect”.

The real figure, however, according to initial military assessments, was somewhat lower, because some of the offers were “recycled” from previous announcements. Sources said the contributions from Germany and Italy had been announced weeks ago. Each had agreed to send another battalion of 500-600 to their bases in the north and west of Afghanistan respectively for the election period.

The most substantial offer came from Britain but even that was not as clear-cut as claimed. The White House preempted Gordon Brown’s planned statement to the Commons by declaring that Britain was to send 900 more troops for the election period, taking the total British presence to 9,000. British defence sources, however, admitted that the 900 included 300 who had already been sent to Afghanistan as a temporary “theatre reserve battalion” to try and counter the growing threat from roadside bombs. This force is currently due to be withdrawn in July.

Seventeen out of the 28 Nato members made offers of some sort, either military, civilian or financial. Most involved relatively small numbers of troops or trainers to instruct the Afghan National Army, and Nato’s military planners now have the task of working out whether the promises will live up to expectations, whether they will genuinely fill the capability gaps which have been identified, and when the extra soldiers will be ready to deploy to Afghanistan.

The provision of additional troops is supposed to be in line with what the military in Nato call the “combined joint status requirement”. Concerns are already being expressed over whether there will be enough of the right quality of trained soldiers among the reinforcements to safeguard the election, due on August 20.

One alliance diplomatic source said: “There’s a strong possibility that the Americans will have to play a bigger role than planned in protecting the election if the troops from Europe are not up to scratch. The US may have to assign more of their combat troops for this role.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had already announced that France was not going to send any more troops, took little part in the private session when member nations started coming forward with offers. A source said: “Sarkozy left the meeting almost straight away and didn’t take part. Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] also left the room before the meeting was over.”

A review by The Times of some of the offers arising from the two-day 60th anniversary summit which ended on Saturday highlights the difficulties now faced by Nato’s military planners, who will meet this week to assess how the mixed bag of offers will help. “One problem is that some of the troops on offer will not be trained for serving in a hostile environment like Afghanistan and may not be ready in time for the election period,” one alliance source said.

Apart from Britain’s promise of up to 900, there were 600 from Germany (an old offer), 100 from The Netherlands, plus 100 trainers, three helicopters and two transport aircraft, a single training team from Greece, 600 from Spain (to make up for its recent withdrawal from Kosovo, according to one source), one training team from Croatia, 400 from Poland (like the German offer, already announced), 500 from Italy (another old offer), three training teams from Turkey but no election troops, 150 police trainers from France, 65 soldiers from Belgium and 100 extra civilian specialists from Canada, plus additional helicopters and unmanned spy planes.

General John Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur), had asked for 4,000 more troops for the election period in southern Afghanistan alone, but the bulk of this figure will have to be met by the US, with Britain’s extra soldiers. The British troops are expected to be sent soon and will stay until October.

In addition to troops, some countries pledged more money for a training fund, including Germany (€50 million) and Greece (€600,000). Britain announced £200 million in aid to Afghanistan for 2009.

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