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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S., Allies at Odds Over Aid Strategy

Relief: Britain, France and others want troops to help safeguard deliveries. But America fears being diverted from military goals.

November 29, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A rift has opened between the United States and its key allies over the Bush administration's reluctance to deploy allied troops in Afghanistan to help safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid.

While Britain, France and other allies have been eager for weeks to move in forces, U.S. officials have balked. The Americans worry that the presence of such troops could divert attention and resources from the principal U.S. goal of chasing down Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, European diplomats say.

Foreign diplomats and international relief officials say the lack of action has been an obstacle to delivering aid when it is needed most. They also say it has stirred European resentment of the U.S. approach to the war, especially from some members of the British government.

Administration officials deny that a rift exists and say that the Europeans were discouraged from deploying such forces because of resistance from the Northern Alliance, Afghanistan's anti-Taliban opposition group. The alliance "does not see the need for outside forces," a senior administration official said.

U.S. officials insist that they are committed to helping open routes for aid through northern Afghanistan and are considering various options.

President Bush signaled his commitment to the goal of providing aid after meeting Wednesday with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other top United Nations officials. The officials had come to the White House to discuss the danger of rising violence in Afghanistan.

"The fundamental question is, in an environment that is not very secure, how do we get the food to the people?" Bush asked. "That's what we're working on."

Pentagon officials indicated Wednesday that they were dealing with the problem. U.S. forces in northern Afghanistan were examining airfields to see whether they can handle flights carrying humanitarian aid, the officials said.

But the Europeans contend that the Americans have missed an opportunity to move swiftly. They say that the Northern Alliance's objections to the international force could easily have been overcome by the American leaders who have been the opposition's primary partner and underwriter.

Some Europeans blame Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, who they say has been unwilling to take on a job that he does not view as part of his core mission.

The problem "is getting Franks to focus on something he's not focused on," said a British official who asked to remain unidentified.

The official said that although the frictions should not be overstated, the failure to include other countries' troops among the ground forces in Afghanistan had created bad blood.

"It's particularly bad for countries that wanted to be involved and went out on a limb--and then the Pentagon couldn't be involved," he said.

After two years of famine and nearly 23 years of war, Afghanistan has an estimated 7 million residents out of a population of 25 million who are threatened by starvation. The north has been most severely affected.

The possibility of deploying an international security force has been discussed since the war began Oct. 7. After opposition forces took the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Nov. 9, expectations grew that the allies could open a northern route for aid into the country.

The British sent troops to Bagram air base, about 20 miles north of Kabul, to prepare for the arrival of a larger force of up to 6,000 soldiers. The French sent a small contingent to Uzbekistan, one of Afghanistan's neighbors to the north. Offers to help came from Germany, Turkey and other countries.

But plans for deployment got no further, stirring impatience among European governments that have built support for the war among their voters by stressing what the fall of the Taliban would do for the long-suffering Afghans.

Last week, Clare Short, Britain's minister for international development, went public with her displeasure. The issue was "not being taken seriously at a high enough level," she said.

The issue also has drawn U.S. congressional criticism.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview Tuesday that the Bush administration was making a mistake by being "fixated with the notion that we want to run the whole show."

"In order to avoid having to discuss things with [the allies], we don't include them," he said.

One European diplomat, who asked to remain unidentified, said the friction was greatest between the Americans and the British.

Prime Minister Tony Blair "was very visible when he said it was time to solve the humanitarian crisis, and now his troops are being kept out of Afghanistan," the diplomat said. "That translates into a divergence with the United States, which is its closest ally."

The diplomat added that among other European governments, notably France and Germany, the greatest concern is simply that the humanitarian issue has not been addressed.

British officials, who have officially denied a rift, seem increasingly concerned that any appearance of conflict with the U.S. be dispelled.

Last week, officials of the Blair government insisted that there was no division with the Bush administration but acknowledged that the two governments have different priorities.

Now, however, they say that there are no differences at all.

*

Wright reported from Washington and Miller from London. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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