Saturday, September 09, 2006

New urgency to Nato troop call

New urgency to Nato troop call
Rachel Morarjee in Kabul and Daniel Dombey in Brussels
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: September 8 2006 11:48 | Last updated: September 9 2006 02:13

Kabul on Friday suffered its worst bomb blast in recent years, as Nato continued a push for more troops for the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The two events highlighted the challenges facing the military alliance, which has to contend with both a renewed insurgency and inbuilt difficulties in the way it provides troops for its missions.

A suicide bomber rammed into a US military convoy near the US embassy in the Afghan capital, killing two US soldiers and at least 14 civilians. Another 29 people were injured.

The blast was the second deadly bombing in Kabul in the space of a week and an indication that Taliban insurgents are becoming bold enough to strike outside their traditional southern strongholds.

A British soldier was killed in a suicide bomb along with four Afghan civilians on Monday, while fighting in Ghazni province just two hours south of the capital has been fierce this month.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned Friday’s blast as “despicable and shocking”, in words echoed by Afghan residents injured in the explosion.

The attack came as the military chiefs of Nato’s 26 member states met in Warsaw to discuss an urgent request for reinforcements from Gen James Jones, Nato’s top commander.

In comments made to US-based journalists on Thursday night, Gen Jones made clear that he was looking for a reserve battalion of 800-1000 soldiers, plus air support that could involve additional personnel of up to 1,500 people.

Although Gen Jones formally requested such resources before Nato began its operation against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan on July 31, he now believes they are more important than ever.

“Normally in most operations we get by with about 80 per cent, 85 per cent of what we asked for, because most of our operations are somewhat benign,” he said. “But since this one has turned, in the south at any rate, for a moment, pretty hot… getting that remaining 10, 15 per cent seems like more necessary now than it was maybe a month ago.”

Gen Jones’ request represents one of Nato’s toughest challenges yet, since the alliance has long-standing difficulties in providing speedy troop deployments, air support and forces that can be moved around with ease.

Although Nato commanders are keen to use extra soldiers to help against the Taliban before the winter months set in, Nato usually takes considerable time to win troop commitments – and faces particular problems at a time when contributors are stretched in theatres ranging from Lebanon to Iraq.

At present, operations in the most important theatre against the Taliban – around the city of Kandahar - have been bolstered by short-term reinforcements from the Dutch and the US.

Gen Jones also called for a squadron of attack helicopters and “two or three” C-130 aircraft, the latest in a series of requests for more air support in Afghanistan. For years, alliance commanders have been hamstrung by the lack of available aircraft and at present the US is providing air support for many of the operations in the south.

Gen Jones’ call for a flexible reserve battalion could also be difficult to meet. At the moment, national caveats restrict many Nato troops from moving around at will and taking on a fully fledged combat role.


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