Bush pledges more troops for NATO Afghan force
By Andrew Gray
MUSCAT (Reuters) - President George W. Bush pledged at a NATO summit to provide a "significant" number of extra U.S. troops to the alliance mission in Afghanistan in 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
Bush told alliance leaders about the expected troop boost when they discussed Afghanistan in the Romanian capital Bucharest on Thursday, Gates told reporters on his plane as he flew from the summit to the Gulf state of Oman.
"The president indicated that he expected in 2009 that the United States would make a significant additional contribution," Gates said.
Bush leaves office in January 2009. But Gates said the war in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents enjoyed broad political support in the United States and he expected the next president would honor the pledge.
"I believe this is one area where there is very broad bipartisan support in the United States for being successful and I think that no matter who is elected they will want to be successful in Afghanistan," Gates said.
The United States is the biggest contributor to NATO's 47,000-strong force in Afghanistan, with around 17,000 troops.
Gates said it was too soon to say how many more U.S. troops may go to Afghanistan or define their role or likely location.
Washington has urged allies to redouble their efforts in Afghanistan in the face of rising violence there.
Some allies in Europe, where there is substantial public skepticism about the Afghan mission, have been irked by the calls to do more in a war they believe the United States neglected to focus on Iraq.
But the leaders at the summit pledged a long-term commitment to the mission.
"For my money, that's a huge deal, given a lot of the challenges that the allies have faced, given the difficulties some of them have at home politically in terms of this mission," Gates said.
He said when NATO took on the task of helping stabilize all of Afghanistan few or none of the allies "understood what we were getting into as an alliance, that the nature of the mission would change from what they anticipated it was likely to be, being much harder and taking much longer."
AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA
Earlier on Friday, Russia agreed to let NATO use its land to deliver non-lethal supplies to alliance forces in Afghanistan, but not troops or air transit arrangements initially sought by
The deal was showcased as alliance leaders met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bucharest as evidence of cooperation between the former Cold War foes, even though it fell short of NATO hopes.
NATO and Russia also agreed that an existing joint program on training Afghan counter-narcotics officials would be upgraded to a more permanent arrangement.
More details of troop pledges at the summit to the Afghan mission also emerged on Friday.
France offered the biggest contribution of 700 soldiers.
Azerbaijan offered another 45 troops while the Czech Republic said it would provide 120 special forces soldiers in the violent south of the country, according to a source close to the discussion on Afghanistan.
Italy, Romania and Greece offered teams of a few dozen troops to train units of Afghan security forces, the source said. NATO says such teams are among its most pressing needs.
Romanian Defense Minister Teodor Melescanu told reporters Romania had not taken a decision on sending additional troops at the summit but believed it could increase its contingent.
"Romania will show its solidarity and, from our assessment, we think we could boost our military presence in Afghanistan with 120 or 150 soldiers," he said.
(Reporting by Oleg Shchedrov and Mark John; Editing by Charles Dick)