Nato allies split over Washington’s call for more troops

The US administration has declared that it expects “significant new commitments” on Afghanistan from its European partners in Nato before the organisation’s April summit. But a meeting of defence ministers in Krakow has underlined serious differences between the allies on a war they are far from winning.

Last week Barack Obama dispatched 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a figure that is expected to rise to 30,000 in preparation for a “surge” to tackle what the President described as a “resurgent Taliban … and a deteriorating security situation”. Some Nato allies believe, however, that going for the military option would be ultimately fruitless. “Even 140,000 would not be enough to get victory,” a senior European diplomat said. “What we need is a new strategy, without so much emphasis on war fighting.”

A clear parallel was being drawn – the Soviet Union had around 140,000 troops in Afghanistan at the height of a conflict they lost. Even with the new American reinforcements, the total strength of the Western forces would be 80,000. In addition, many soldiers from European countries cannot take part in combat operations because of caveats imposed on their rules of engagement, a limitation that has attracted bitter criticism from the US and UK. But officials from these European states say that such caveats are necessary to prevent the alienation of the Afghan population.

President Hamid Karzai (pictured) is among those angered by civilian casualties caused during Western military operations. German forces had complained that they could not go to some villages or have access to the people “because the Americans had bombed in the area”.

There are also internal divisions in Nato about new “guidance” from General John Craddock, the American commander of Nato, who says Isaf (Nato’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan) can open fire on drug traffickers, even without direct evidence linking them to the insurgents or to criminal activities. Egon Ramms, the head of the German command at Nato, and politicians in Berlin denounced the directive as illegal.

There was also opposition within Isaf. A classified document leaked from the office of General David McKiernan, the force’s US commander, said such action would “seriously undermine the commitment Isaf has made to the Afghan people and the international community … to restrain our use of force and avoid civilian casualties to the greatest degree predictable”.

The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said Washington would make a formal request for reinforcements at Nato’s April summit, but so far the indications are that these will come not in thousands but in hundreds. Italy has said it will send 500 more and Germany 600, although Berlin’s commitment would be to training rather than combat duties. Britain is sending 300 specialist troops to deal with roadside bombs and mines, which are claiming a steady toll of lives, but another 2,500 are expected to be deployed in time for the Afghan elections in August.

Mr Gates had asked that Nato’s rapid reaction force, which has never been deployed, should be sent to Afghanistan as a stopgap. This, however, was blocked by German objections. The prospect of sizeable European reinforcements appeared to diminish further with the Secretary-General of Nato, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, saying the international economic meltdown may force some countries to reduce their global commitments.