US seeking sole command of Nato's war against the Taliban

Western allies risk public backlash if Washington commands troops

The Bush administration is pushing for sweeping changes to the military command structure in Afghanistan, so that the head of international forces would report directly to US Central Command instead of Nato.

The changes would have huge repercussions for Nato, whose officials have stated that Afghanistan is a "defining moment" for the organisation's ability to conduct large-scale operations abroad.

The Independent has learnt that the proposal to streamline the complex chain of command, enabling US General David McKiernan to be answerable to superiors at Centcom in Tampa, Florida, rather than Nato, is before Robert Gates, the American Defence Secretary.

Mr Gates is due in the UK today after a visit to Afghanistan where he spoke about the deteriorating security situation with senior Western officers and Afghan ministers. At the same time, in a mark of the seriousness with which the Americans view the situation, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, flew to Pakistan from where Taliban fighters are mounting cross-border raids.

Any move to make the Afghan war an American-run operation would be controversial in some Nato countries. There is already public disquiet in countries such as Italy, Germany and Canada over the conflict.

Nevertheless, altering the command structure is an option in a wide-ranging plan by Washington to acquire greater control of the mission in Afghanistan. A violent Taliban resurgence has made the past three months the most lethal for Western forces. President George Bush has recently announced that several thousand troops will be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus, who led the "surge" in Iraq, credited with reducing the violence there, is returning to the US in overall charge of both missions.

But it is the proposed change to the command structure in Afghanistan which is seen by the Americans as crucial to whether or not the Afghan mission succeeds. Officials point out that in Iraq, General Petraeus was in sole command, which allowed him to carry out his counter-insurgency plan. In Afghanistan, however, different Nato countries are in charge of different regions, often with different rules. Forty nations ranging from Albania and Iceland to the US and Britain are involved in Afghan operations. The force in southern Afghanistan, the main theatre of combat, includes troops from Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Australia, Romania and nine other nations.

US forces sent to Afghanistan recently from Iraq claimed that operations were being stymied because of the multi-layered command structure. Colonel Anthony Anderson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines complained publicly: "We are trying to keep our frustration in check ... but we have to wait for the elephants to stop dancing", a reference to the alleged clumsiness of the international command.

Lt Col Brian Mennes, commander of Task Force Fury, a parachute battalion serving in Kandahar, said at the end of his tour: "We don't understand where we are going here, we desperately want to see a strategy in front of us."

The two separate missions in Afghanistan – the Nato-led Isaf (International Security and Assistance Force), and Operation Enduring Freedom, by the Americans in the border regions with Pakistan – are due be merged under General McKiernan. This, say some US officers, needs a streamlined structure unencumbered by countless Nato caveats on rules of engagement. The Americans are said to be "acutely aware" of the sensitivity of Nato allies on the issue of command structure. Mr Gates recently said: "The command structure is a sensitive matter in terms of the eyes of our allies. And so if there were to be any changes it would require some pretty intensive consultations with our allies."

One avenue under consideration is for Nato to continue to be in charge of matters such as logistics, force protection and public affairs while direct counter-insurgency operations would be run from Centcom by General Petraeus.

Major General Julian Thompson, former commander of the Royal Marines, raised doubts about the viability of changing the command structure from Nato to Centcom. "It seems to me that this will make the command structure in Afghanistan even more complicated. What will be the position of Nato soldiers from other countries? It would be a bit like a British commander saying he would report directly to the MoD in London rather than Nato."

However, General Thompson acknowledged: "To my knowledge there are certainly some difficulties with so many nationalities in Afghanistan. In Helmand, for instance, some of the troops from other Nato countries have had to refer back home on orders issued by the British."

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