Nato runs critically short of combat troops to keep Taliban at bay

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair and other Nato leaders gathering in the Latvian capital, Riga, this week will almost certainly fail to secure the additional troops being sought to keep the Taliban at bay in Afghanistan, according to sources here.

Although it took over responsibility for the whole country just a few weeks ago, Nato's mission remains at least 15 per cent undermanned, with a significant shortage of combat troops and a desperate lack of helicopters. A succession of Nato meetings has failed to secure reinforcements, and all the indications are that the alliance's Riga summit, presented as one of the most crucial in its post-Cold War history, will not be any more successful.

Commanders have repeatedly sought at least 1,000 fighting troops to form a quick reaction force which could deal with upsurges of violence, but many in the 37-nation mission have insisted on constraints which effectively keep them away from the front line. Germany refuses to allow its troops even to be based in the south and east of the country, where the Taliban are most active. Other countries say peacekeeping commitments, such as those in Lebanon and the Balkans, prevent them sparing more for Afghanistan.

A Polish contingent is due to be deployed in southern Afghanistan in January, possibly freeing troops from countries with more robust rules of engagement, such as Britain and Canada, for other tasks. But military chiefs say they would still need further resources to have a reserve ready to deal with any revival of the insurgency in the spring.

Fears that Afghanistan would slide into Iraq-style anarchy have eased for the moment. Kabul has not had a suicide bombing for six weeks, although two local people were injured yesterday in a suicide attack on a Nato convoy south of the capital. After a spate of casualties in the summer, the last British soldier to die in action was Marine Gary Wright, killed in a suicide bombing in mid-October.

A series of truces at local and national level, produced by informal talks between Hamid Karzai's government with the Taliban and its Islamist ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appear to be holding for the time being. Sources close to the Taliban admitted to The Independent on Sunday that the insurgents had suffered during Nato's recent offensive in the Kandahar region, Operation Medusa.

There is also the traditional Afghan break from campaigning during the winter, and the fact this is the poppy planting season. The Taliban, like others in Afghanistan, profit from heroin and do not want to disrupt production.

The British commander of Nato's forces in Afghanistan, Lt-Gen David Richards, sought to speed up development work when he took over in mid-2006, believing it was essential to win public support. He also helped President Karzai set up an action group to co-ordinate security operations with aid work. But his tenure is due to end early in the new year, and the Pentagon has successfully lobbied to replace him with an American who is expected to take a far more aggressive stance.

Some senior Afghan officials want General Richards to remain in some capacity, but that will be subject to Nato's labyrinthine politics.

The Taliban may also return to confrontation as winter recedes. According to Islamist sources, Mr Hekmatyar's tentative talks with the Afghan government have run into opposition from his al-Qa'ida allies. The most active of the Taliban commanders, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, is strongly against any truce, and it will be easy to replace the fighters lost or killed during the summer from madrasas, or religious schools, across the border in Pakistan.

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