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NATO extends Afghanistan tours

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

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The NATO mission in the southern region includes 17 nations, which some say has led to too much political intervention from each nation and too many layers of command, creating an incoherent strategy.

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Those criticisms had driven talk of late that the US could focus counterinsurgency efforts better in the south if it were to assume greater control of the NATO mission there. The US already has control of the eastern sector and is credited with a successful strategy there in both US and Afghan circles. The US command tour length is currently 15 months, but will soon revert to 12 months under a new policy under Mr. Gates.

Some analysts would also like to see the NATO command structure in Afghanistan modified to give the US, which supplies the most troops, greater control of the overall mission.

Afghan analysts lauded the move to extend command tours, saying it would promote the mission's "institutional memory," allow Western forces to maintain relationships with the Afghan people, and send a message about NATO's commitment.

Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, the co-founder and director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, a think tank in Kabul, says any negative impact would stem from longer and more stressful tours for soldiers.

"Otherwise, it is a very good decision which shows more commitment and dedication," says Mr. Rahmani in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, Gates has already signaled his intent hope to provide more troops to Afghanistan in 2009 in response to calls from the field for as many as three more brigades, or as many as 12,000 new troops. About 61,000 men and women are currently serving in Afghanistan, about half American. But the Pentagon is reluctant to send any more troops until it can effectively draw down troop levels in Iraq.

That won't likely occur in any substantial numbers until next year under a new administration. If and when the US sends more troops, they could fall under the newly expanded NATO command structure.

Gen. David Petraeus, now the top commander in Iraq, will soon be reassigned to become commander of US Central Command, in Tampa, Fla., and oversee all military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including Afghanistan. An expert in counterinsurgency, he is expected to bring renewed focus to US efforts there.