Nato to take over Afghanistan operation

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The Independent Online

Nato will take command next month of peacekeeping duties in all parts of Afghanistan hit by the Taliban insurgency after the US said it would transfer 12,000 more troops to its force.

The US servicemen will be moved from the relatively peaceful eastern part of Afghanistan to the volatile southern region, where Nato troops, including 5,000 British soldiers, have been fighting an increasingly bloody war with Islamist Taliban fighters.

The deployment will mean that 14,000 of Nato's 32,000 International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) troops under British command would be provided by the US, its biggest contingent under foreign control since the Second World War.

The agreement yesterday came as European nations failed to agree to send more troops to cover shortfalls identified by commanders. The secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, at the Nato meeting in Slovenia, urged other countries to send more troops to the country.

He said: "I am grateful that the United States has decided to bring its forces under Isaf. It should not be used as an argument that we can now rest on our laurels."

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "The aggregation of that is the situation that's really not acceptable. I believe a little more progress was made today and we'll just have to keep working on it."

The US troop transfer had been expected later in the year, but officials said the fierce nature of the fighting with the Taliban in the south made it necessary to pool British, Dutch and Canadian troops under Nato with separate US forces.

There has been an upsurge in violence in Afghanistan over the past five months, particularly in the southern province of Helmand, although the capital Kabul has also been hit by attacks, including by numerous suicide bombers.

The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, admitted earlier this month that Britain and its Nato allies had seriously underestimated the strength of the Taliban and the violent resistance faced by Western forces in Afghanistan. Since January, 140 foreign troops have been killed in fighting or accidents during operations. Seventeen British servicemen have been killed by enemy fire since June, according to the Ministry of Defence, and 19 have died there this month.

Isaf currently has just over 20,000 troops from 37 countries operating in Kabul and the north, west and south. The bulk of them are European. The American-led coalition codenamed Operation Enduring Freedom has a similar number. Some US forces will remain outside Isaf command to mount search-and-destroy missions against the Taliban.

Mr Scheffer said the alliance made some progress at the talks yesterday in raising 2,500 extra troops requested by commanders, but acknowledged there were still shortages.

Germany, whose parliament yesterday agreed to extend for another year the mandate of its 3,000-strong mission in the relatively calm north of Afghanistan, once again declined at the talks to send any troops to the south.

Other Western European nations, including France, Italy and Spain, have all refused to send more troops to the region, contending that their armed forces are at full stretch elsewhere. Poland has offered 1,000 troops to be deployed by February, and Romania is expected to offer a similar number. The Bulgarian Defence Minister, Veselin Bliznakov, told Reuters that it could take a decision to send more troops in October.

The ministers yesterday also agreed to provide substantial amounts of military equipment for the Afghan army, which has already been fighting alongside Nato troops.