NATO chief disputes US intelligence assessment on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took issue with the U.S. intelligence chief’s recent estimate that the Afghan government controlled only about 30 percent of the country.

In a speech Friday, de Hoop Scheffer also chided U.S. officials for publicly criticizing the contribution of other NATO members to the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan.

Earlier, speaking after a White House meeting with President George W. Bush, de Hoop Scheffer stressed the importance of the Afghan mission. He said that besides supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people, “We’re also there because we are fighting terrorism, and we cannot afford to lose. We are not losing; we are prevailing.”

Bush said the United States is “committed to a comprehensive strategy that helps folks in Afghanistan realize security, at the same time, economic prosperity and political progress.”

The comments come as the alliance is grappling with a resurgent Taliban and is looking to strengthen its fighting force. In just over a month, NATO is holding a summit in Bucharest, where Afghanistan is likely to dominate the discussions.
On Wednesday, U.S. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell gave a bleak assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban controls 10 percent to 11 percent of the country, while the government controls 30 percent to 31 percent.

“That is not the analysis that our military commanders make,” de Hoop Scheffer said in his talk organized by The Brookings Institution. “I must admit that I was surprised by the analysis that I heard.”

De Hoop Scheffer also pleaded to the United States to cool its public hectoring of some European allies for greater contributions in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates have repeatedly vented frustration that appeals for more troops — and to allow commanders to use them with fewer restrictions — haven fallen flat. Gates has even warned of a fissure within the alliance over the issue.

“Clearly there is a perception on the part of some NATO allies that others are not pulling their weight. Notably here in the United States there is a palpable feeling that some European allies are underperforming in Afghanistan, that they are either unable or unwilling to make a greater effort,” he said. “In my view we simply cannot afford to play the blame game and can even less afford to play it publicly.”

But de Hoop Scheffer also made clear that he believes the alliance must show more solidarity by eliminating the many restrictions — or caveats as they are known within NATO — that some members have imposed on how and where their troops can be used in Afghanistan.

“We cannot afford the notion that certain allies have only limited responsibilities and are confined to specific areas,” he said. “I will not be happy and I will not be satisfied until we see a fundamental limitation of the caveats.”

NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces is 50,000-strong in Afghanistan, but commanders have asked for more combat troops, particularly for the country’s south, where the insurgency is the most active.

Countries like Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar, have threatened to end their combat role in Afghanistan unless other NATO countries provide an additional 1,000 troops to help the anti-Taliban drive there.

The United States, which already has some 28,000 forces in the country — both in the NATO-led mission and as part of a separate U.S.-led counterterrorism coalition — is sending in April an additional 3,200 Marines, most of whom are expected to be stationed in Kandahar during their seven-month tour.

De Hoop Scheffer and Bush said they also discussed the bids by Croatia, Macedonia and Albania to join NATO, a decision that will be made at the summit.

“Our hope is that nations that have applied to join NATO will continue to meet their … obligations,” Bush said after meeting for about 45 minutes at the White House with Scheffer.

Scheffer promised nothing more than that NATO enlargement would be on the agenda in Romania.

“The nations concerned should go on with their reforms,” he said. “No tickets are punched yet.”

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