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NATO extends Afghanistan tours

Britain and the Netherlands agree to longer tours, delaying a bigger US role in the mission.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2008

Staying back? A Canadian soldier walks through a poppy field Wednesday in Zharey district in southern Afghanistan.

Peter Andrews/Reuters

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Washington

NATO allies in Afghanistan have agreed to extend the length of their command tours in the volatile southern region, a move that for now will blunt calls for the US to assume a larger role there.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded talks with his counterparts in Britain and the Netherlands last week in which they agreed to extend the length of each of their tours from nine to 12 months. For the last few years, the British, the Dutch, and the Canadians have shared responsibility for the southern region under NATO, taking turns at command. Under the new agreement, when Canada relinquishes its command in November, the Dutch will take over for a year, followed by the British, a defense official says. The US would then take over command in 2010, says Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

"With our increased troop commitment to RC [Regional Command] South, we will eventually seek a command rotation, but we are in no rush to take over and have confidence in the ability of our allies down there to lead the effort until then," Mr. Morrell says.

While the move appears to be a minor accommodation, analysts say it demonstrates the allies' commitment to the Afghanistan mission and takes pressure off the US military to seek a broader role more immediately in the region.

Critics have decried shorter tour lengths as half-hearted efforts that undermine counterinsurgency operations in the most violent region of the country. Frequent turnover of commanders and their staffs weaken the mission and undercut the building of relationships between Western forces and their Afghan counterparts – key to counterinsurgency efforts, experts say.

"We think this new arrangement will provide for greater predictability, continuity, and stability in this vitally important region of Afghanistan," Morrell says. The new plan suggests that Canada may actually scale back its command role in the coming years, possibly because of political considerations at home where the mission is not popular.

The longer tour lengths were seen as so critical that senior Pentagon officials in uniform had said that if such agreements were not made, the US would have had to actively consider taking over command in the south.

Violence has foiled counterinsurgency efforts, where suicide and roadside bombings are up by a Taliban seeking to reestablish control after it was toppled by a US-led effort in 2002.

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