Rice heads to London to discuss Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to fly to London Tuesday to discuss the stakes in Afghanistan as the United States and Britain pressed their allies to do more to crush a resurgent Taliban.

In a campaign that has ruffled the feathers of some NATO allies, US officials are warning that the Taliban’s defeat is not guaranteed — more than six years after it was toppled by US-led forces at the end of 2001.

The stakes are all the greater as US officials acknowledge that the radical Islamist movement has turned its sights on an increasinly unstable Pakistan next door.

Rice was to meet Wednesday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain, a staunch ally that has echoed US calls to deploy more troops to combat zones in southern Afghanistan.

The London talks — which will also touch on Iraq, Iran and Kosovo — come before NATO foreign and defense ministers hold separate talks in the runup to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Bucharest in April.

Rice — who warned in September 2006 that Afghanistan will “come back to haunt us” if the world abandons its military support for the fragile government in Kabul — struck a matter-of-fact tone when her trip was announced last week.

“NATO as an alliance has been looking at what it needs to do and what more needs to be done to fight the Taliban, to permit the Afghan people to have security so that reconstruction can take place,” Rice said.

But Richard Boucher, the State Department’s pointman for Afghanistan, told a Senate hearing last Thursday that “the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s future is abandonment by the international community.”

Calling for more equipment such as helicopters and more combat troops in the flash-point south, he added: “Success is possible but not assured.”

His remarks came during a week in which US experts issued reports warning that Afghanistan will become a failed state unless urgent steps are taken to tackle worsening security.

Rice’s spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday that there were “tactical differences” within NATO and “we respect those.”

But he said Washington will also be frank about what it believes is essential to the mission’s success.

“We will speak in a pretty forward way about the need for NATO as an alliance to add more troops and add more combat power,” McCormack told reporters.

Washington has publicly praised Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark as well as non-NATO member Australia for assuming the more dangerous missions in Afghanistan.

It has made no secret it would like European powers like France and Germany to do more to fight Taliban strongholds in the south, but has said the decision is up to them about how best to contribute.

Nevertheless, the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported exchanges of “direct and stern” letters beteen US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung over US calls for combat troops.

Last month Gates also tried to mend fences with NATO allies but did not change his view that the alliance overall remains under-trained to fight insurgents there.

Commanders in Afghanistan have been calling for around 7,500 extra troops. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) comprises some 42,000 troops from 39 countries.

The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, around half of them in ISAF.

Gates has informed allies of US plans to deploy 3,200 Marines in Afghanistan for six months, and asked them if their forces could replace the Marines when they come out.

With 7,700 soldiers now in Afghanistan, most of them in the restive southern region, Britain has sharply increased its presence in the last year.

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