BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) â€” At the heart of President Bush’s problem in getting NATO allies to send more combat troops to Afghanistan is a basic disconnect over the war: The Europeans don’t see it as one.
To them, it is mainly a challenge of political and economic development. To the U.S., that position underestimates the importance of confronting a Taliban insurgency that threatens the central government and is in cahoots with the al-Qaida terrorist network that launched the Sept. 11 attacks from Afghanistan.
NATO’s split is evident even in how the Americans and the Europeans talk about Afghanistan.
The other day a European officer at NATO’s military headquarters in Belgium was explaining NATO’s role in Afghanistan to a few American reporters. He spoke about improving security, building a judicial system and countering drugs. He mentioned training Afghan forces and providing humanitarian assistance.
Not once did “war” or “counterinsurgency” cross his lips.
Therein lies the disconnect that helps explain why NATO, leading an International Security Assistance Force that has 47,000 troops in Afghanistan, has been so out of step with the United States in finding a comprehensive approach to fixing what has gone wrong in the country over the past two years.
It’s a difference that is on display this week at the NATO summit, where Bush is pressing allies to chip in with more combat forces. Bush probably will get some, but nowhere near all that the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, says he needs to succeed on the battlefield.
On Wednesday, Bush spoke optimistically about the prospects for getting more Europeans to contribute.
“I feel good about what I’m hearing from my fellow leaders about their desire to support Afghanistan,” Bush said. “I think if tomorrow we get clarification on troop support … the people of Afghanistan are going to be more than grateful.” He did not mention specific numbers of additional troops.
McNeill has set a bare minimum requirement for three additional battalions â€” two infantry and one for border security. That translates to roughly 2,000 more troops, although the exact number has yet to be worked out. U.S. officials are confident that pledges totaling at least 2,000 troops will emerge in Bucharest.
But that is far from attaining the force growth that McNeill says he believes is necessary for success against the Taliban, which is largely unchallenged in some parts of the south. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that McNeill’s real requirement is for three more brigades â€” something that other officials say is in the range of 7,500 to 10,000 troops.
The Americans and their European allies agree the war cannot be won with military power alone. They agree more should be done to coordinate and integrate international help for Afghanistan’s central government to extend its influence farther from the capital of Kabul. They agree on other priorities, too, such as reducing the drug crop and getting the decrepit economy moving forward.
But when it comes to combat, the Americans are seen by the Europeans as overemphasizing its role.
The difference in views has come more to the fore since NATO in the fall of 2006 assumed overall command for all regions in Afghanistan. That meant the allies found themselves in the worst of the fighting, in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban traditionally has enjoyed the strongest local support.
It got so bad that Canada threatened to pull its troops from southern Afghanistan unless other allies sent an additional 1,000 combat troops to help. That demand is expected to be met by pledges in Bucharest.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper alluded to the U.S.-European division when he told reporters in Bucharest on Wednesday, “I think we are narrowing the differences on what needs to be done.” He added that NATO had misjudged how tough a fight it was getting into when it entered Afghanistan.
“We all underestimated the task,” Harper said.
That goes for the Bush administration, too.
A contingent of 2,500 Marines is being added in southern Afghanistan, but Gates has insisted their participation will end in November. He is pressing NATO to find allies willing to replace the Marines.
To be sure, troops from Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and some other European allies are fighting and dying in battles with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. But those countries, in concert with Washington, are finding it hard to persuade other allies, including Germany, to contribute to the combat mission.
Gates has said that lingering anger in Europe over the U.S. invasion of Iraq explains why some allies are reluctant to heed U.S. calls for more combat troops in Afghanistan. In March, Gates undertook a public mission to persuade Europeans that al-Qaida poses a threat to them, too.
NATO itself continues to insist that its mission is progressing. In a paper published to coincide with the Bucharest summit, the alliance wrote that “there is room for cautious optimism” even as the number of attacks by insurgents has increased.