WASHINGTON — America's NATO allies signaled broad support Friday for an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, adding to the momentum building for a substantial U.S. troop increase.
NATO defense ministers meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, endorsed the strategy put forward by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. The alliance rejected competing proposals to narrow the military mission to fighting the remnants of Al Qaeda.
They did not discuss specific troop levels, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said a number of allies indicated they were thinking about increasing their own military or civilian contributions.
"The only way to ensure that Afghanistan does not become once again a safe haven for terrorism is if it is made strong enough to resist the insurgency as well," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general. "In Afghanistan, you cannot separate counter-terrorism from counterinsurgency."
As the Obama administration reviews U.S. strategy, the NATO endorsement is likely to add impetus to McChrystal's request for a reported 40,000 additional troops to protect the Afghan people, shore up the government and counter Taliban militants.
It is unlikely that defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would have issued such an unambiguous endorsement of McChrystal's plan without at least the tacit approval of U.S. officials.
Gates attended the meeting and made no attempt to counter the move by the ministers to throw their backing behind McChrystal's recommendation. Gates is considered a supporter of the plan, but has avoided publicly discussing his views.
"I was in a listening mode," Gates said at a news conference. "We are here to consult."
The endorsement came at a time of increasing confidence among military and other government officials in Washington that the administration will agree to much of McChrystal's request. Showing that the administration has the support of allies would be crucial to President Obama's ability to make his case for a troop increase to the U.S. public.
Developments in Afghanistan's presidential election may clear another potential hurdle. President Hamid Karzai's acceptance of a runoff election could provide the Afghan government with the legitimacy experts say is essential to McChrystal's strategy.
Together, the Afghan runoff, scheduled for Nov. 7, and the NATO endorsement undercut proposals by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and others to focus more on hunting terrorists than on defeating the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
"It does not solve the problems in Afghanistan just to hunt down and kill individual terrorists," Rasmussen said. "What we need is a much broader strategy."
Obama administration officials have been reviewing their strategy for the last six weeks. Gates said the analytic phase of the internal deliberations was nearly finished and that specific options would be discussed over the next two to three weeks.
The final decision by Obama could come right before or soon after the runoff between Karzai and his challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The runoff is important to U.S. plans because a legitimate government in Kabul is seen as vital to the success of a counterinsurgency plan. Controversy stemming from findings of fraud in Afghanistan's August election fueled White House interest in reopening the strategy debate.
As part of the NATO meeting, McChrystal offered a 15-minute assessment of the war to the defense ministers.
In addition to the 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has about 38,000 from 42 countries. Fewer than 10 of the countries have more than 1,000 troops there. The largest contingents are from Britain, with 9,000, followed by Germany, France and Canada.
This year is already the bloodiest for international forces since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban. According to the website icasualties.org, 420 foreign troops have been killed in 2009, including 253 Americans. Eighty-five of the dead have been from Britain, and 82 from other countries.
Actual troop commitments will not be discussed by NATO until November, but Gates cited indications that U.S. allies were willing to send more.
"I detected a commitment and an energy on the part of our allies, both in uniform and civilians, in terms of their determination to participate with us in Afghanistan and see this through to a successful conclusion," Gates said.
The meeting posed challenges both for the Obama administration and its NATO allies, said Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For the administration, it was a key opportunity to keep allies on board during the White House strategy review. To the alliance, the meeting underscored that Afghanistan remains a crucial test.