Ottawa lobbying NATO allies for help in Afghanistan

Canada is putting pressure on individual NATO allies for support in southern Afghanistan, but no definite troop commitments have been made.

“They will be badgering, questioning, pushing France, Italy, Spain and other countries to get involved in the south, to take on a much stronger combat role,” CTV’s Paul Workman told Mike Duffy Live Wednesday from Kandahar.

“It’s a very difficult issue and a painful one for NATO. Many people feel that this mission in Afghanistan will either make or break NATO over the next five to 10 years.”

Various NATO defence ministers held an informal meeting Wednesday in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, and will meet against next month.

According to The Canadian Press, Canadian officials are focusing their efforts on Germany and France.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said more member countries might be willing to increase their Afghanistan troop commitments, but didn’t give any specific details.

He said it would be up to individual governments to say what they are prepared to contribute.

However, he hinted that more contributions would likely be directed to helping train the Afghan National Army.

NATO has only supplied about 20 of 46 promised troop-training teams tasked with building Afghanistan’s army.

Scheffer would like to see the alliance’s members better share the combat burden in Afghanistan by rotating troops in and out of dangerous regions, but told reporters that such an initiative would be a long-term plan.

“I’ll not table a rotation plan, I’ll mention it and I hope that me mentioning it and possibly ministers discussing this will have some impact,” he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed support for the idea of rotating troops amongst Afghan regions.

In opening Wednesday’s meeting, Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop pushed the ministers from 26 member countries on the need to share the combat burden in Afghanistan.

“One thing is certain, there is no such thing as a free ride to peace and security,” van Middelkoop told ministers representing 26 countries, including Canada.

“It is not about what we are willing to say for a safer and more just world, it ultimately depends on what we are willing to do. Fair risk and burden sharing will remain leading principles of the alliance.”

Helicopters

The NATO ministers are expected to approve on Wednesday the chartering of up to 20 large, civilian-operated helicopters to boost airlift capacity in Afghanistan.

The move is expected to heighten some of the tensions within the military alliance, as some major European members serving in northern Afghanistan are unwilling to send their military helicopters into the southern combat zones, The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday.

Canada has no heavy-lift helicopters of its own. Canadian troops, operating mainly in volatile Kandahar province, have seen a high proportion of their casualties come from roadside bombs.

Renting helicopters to fill roles in combat zones is unprecedented for NATO, The Globe said.

The civilian-operated helicopters will likely be used to transport supplies and ammunition, but will free up Dutch, British and U.S. military helicopters to move troops and casualties.

Pushing Canada

While countries with helicopters — such as France, Germany and Italy — aren’t willing to deploy them to help Canadian troops, they are expected to press Canada to extend its troop commitment to beyond February 2009.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is expected to say that Canada’s commitment beyond that date hasn’t been decided yet.

Harper would like to see the combat mission extended until at least 2011.

The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois want to see the mission end as scheduled, and the NDP wants Canadian troops out now.

Canada has about 2,500 soldiers serving under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. Since 2002, 71 have died, along with one diplomat.

Harper recently announced a blue-ribbon panel to consider the mission’s future.

The Dutch government is expected to approve the extension of its deployment in Uruzgan province, which sits just north of Kandahar province, beyond 2008.

However, the country’s troop commitment of 1,600 is expected to be reduced by about 600 to 1,200 soldiers. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday he expects the Netherlands to extend its mission’s mandate.

An estimated 41,000 troops are serving in Afghanistan — a number that NATO commanders see about 10 per cent below strength.

Of the NATO forces, Canadian, U.S., British and Dutch soldiers have borne the lion’s share of combat operations. Other countries have put tight restrictions on their troops to keep them out of harm’s way.

Besides Afghanistan, NATO ministers are expected to discuss the situation in Kosovo, where 17,000 alliance troops are deployed, and Turkey’s threat to send its troops into northern Iraq to hunt down Kurdish separatists.

Turkey is a NATO member.

The ministers will also meet with nations, like Australia, who aren’t NATO members but who have contributed troops to the Afghan mission.

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