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NATO chief says more troops needed in Afghanistan

'We have to do more now, if we want to do less later,' says Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who says additional help is needed in training Afghan security forces.

September 29, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — Stepping into an intensifying debate in Washington, the new head of NATO said Monday that more allied troops are needed in Afghanistan to help train the country's security forces.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who took over Aug. 1 as NATO's secretary-general, said he agreed with an assessment last month by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and allied commander in Afghanistan, who emphasized the need to secure Afghan cities.

"We have to do more now, if we want to do less later," Rasmussen said during a speech in Washington.

McChrystal has submitted, in addition to his assessment, a request for additional U.S. troops, but officials will not say how many he wants. Aside from the need for more trainers, Rasmussen said it was premature to discuss other troop needs.

The comments by Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark, come as key members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are making plans to pull their troops from Afghanistan.

They also come in the midst of a review launched by President Obama to help decide whether to stick with a strategy that requires more troops or downsize U.S. aims in Afghanistan. Administration officials plan a closed meeting today on the issue.

In his address at the Atlantic Council, Rasmussen stressed that allies would stay in Afghanistan as long as it took to succeed. But he said NATO countries must have a sense that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" and that Afghan security forces would assume more responsibility.

That transition, he emphasized, could not be done "on the cheap."

Rasmussen's remarks are considered significant because NATO commands troops sent by more than 40 countries and the U.S. There are 38,000 troops from other NATO countries, and the number of U.S. troops is to reach 68,000 by year's end.

Rasmussen did not say how many more trainers he believes are needed, or where they should come from.

However, acknowledging a strain between the United States and the rest of NATO, Rasmussen dismissed U.S. fears that the alliance is intent on leaving Afghanistan.

"None of this will be quick, and none of this will be easy," he said. "We will need to have patience. We will need more resources and we will lose more young soldiers to the terrorist attacks of the Taliban."

Public support for the Afghanistan war has been shaken in the U.S. and in many other NATO countries by a steady increase in violence, charges of fraud in last month's Afghan presidential election and continuing incidents of civilian casualties.

"We cannot simply continue doing what we are doing now," Rasmussen said. "Things are going to have to change. Public support for this mission in troop-contributing countries is falling."

In the long term, he argued, it is vital to establish a democracy in Afghanistan and to address governmental corruption and a lack of accountability.

But in the wake of the election problems and continued reports of corruption in Afghanistan, top Obama officials have voiced second thoughts about the wisdom of efforts to legitimize the government.

In the first of a series of strategy meetings, top national security officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, will meet today at the White House.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the meetings were designed to make "eventual determinations" about U.S. strategy. "This isn't going to be finished in one meeting," he said.

As the U.S. increases its troop level, other NATO countries plan to pull out their soldiers. The Netherlands is set to remove its troops next year and Canada will withdraw in 2011. Italy has also said it plans on reductions.

Rasmussen said that trend could accelerate if U.S. officials downplay the contributions of alliance members, leaving them "less inclined to make those efforts."

Gates and other officials have previously criticized some allies' restrictions on their troops' involvement in combat. U.S. officials also have criticized allied units for a lack of expertise in counterinsurgency warfare. Recently, however, Gates has praised the contributions of Canada, the Netherlands, Britain and Denmark.

"Talking down the European and Canadian contributions -- as some here in the U.S. do on occasion -- can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," Rasmussen said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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