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U.S. to heighten Afghan role?

Pentagon weighs lead role in NATO's combat mission in the south to better
fight Taliban.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2008

US Presence: American soldiers wait at a school in Logar Province, Afghanistan.

Andy Nelson – Staff

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The Pentagon is considering whether it should push to change the NATO mission in volatile southern Afghanistan to give the US greater control in the fight against a growing Taliban threat.

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The move is one of many being assessed as fears rise that the collective effort of NATO forces there lacks coherence. The Taliban's comeback over the past two years has been marked by a spike in suicide bombings and other violence – at the same time that critics say the complex command structure governing NATO and US forces has stifled combat and reconstruction efforts.

American officials see a possible answer in modeling the southern region after the east, which falls under NATO but is led by a subordinate US command and viewed as relatively successful.

The issue is not a new one, but has been overshadowed by the need for more forces in Afghanistan. With new commitments by some allies in place, the focus now is on creating more workable relationships on the ground – without conjuring images of "American bullying," as one retired US officer puts it, among allies whose commitments already hang by a slender thread.

All discussion is in "incubation," says a Pentagon official with firsthand knowledge of the situation, and a decision is still some months away.

"This is the sausage being made," says the official, who like others quoted in this article asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the discussions.

Support for change comes from outside the military as well. "I think there is a strong rationale for making that command and control much more efficient," Seth Jones, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., told a House panel this month. "We have multiple US chains of command that go through European Command, Central Command, Special Operations Command," he said. "I think there are a range of options on the table about making that arrangement more efficient."

NATO took over what was a security-and-stabilization effort, but is now confronting a combat mission in some of the country's most dangerous provinces. The size of the 61,000-member force, about half of which is American, with the rest from 39 countries, remains a major challenge for commanders. Also of concern is their view that troops as well as provincial reconstruction teams can be more responsive to their countries' domestic concerns than to the commanders under whom they technically fall.

But a particularly thorny issue is the frequent rotations of commands. The southern sector rotates a new subordinate coalition command every nine months. The current Canadian commander, for example, will be replaced by a Dutch counterpart by the end of the year. The frequency of change allow the Taliban to exploit the seams of those transitions, critics say.

In contrast, the Americans cast the US-led eastern sector as successful, in part because of the longer tours – 12 to 15 months or more.

"You get American soldiers and their leaders who establish, maintain, and exploit relationships with the terrain, the indigenous people, and their leadership and their enemy to a fare-thee-well," says Gen. Dan McNeill, senior NATO commander based in Kabul.

"Each time you get a change in nationality in one of these commands, the Afghans as well as the international force have to make adjustments," says General McNeill, who believes the overall strategy in Afghanistan is working and that the larger command structure is succeeding. But he acknowledges that the frequency of rotations in the south is "probably not the most helpful."

Many others believe the overall command needs overhaul. "I have to believe that all my instincts and experience tells me that it ain't working well," says one senior American officer with intimate knowledge of the mission.

But requesting that the coalition forces in the south essentially expand on their commitment by extending their forces is not seen as a simple change.