Britain's Brown considers 500 more soldiers in Afghanistan

Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the UK will add the troops if the British military properly equips them, the Afghan army recruits more soldiers, and other NATO countries 'bear their fair share.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    British soldiers walk inside Camp Leatherneck, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan on Oct. 8.
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British prime minister Gordon Brown's announcement Wednesday that he will likely send 500 more troops to Afghanistan is being viewed with some puzzlement in a Europe that, so far, has turned a deaf ear to President Barack Obama's entreaties for more NATO forces.

The UK has been America's most reliable ally in Afghanistan during eight years of war, with the 9,000 British troops there now second only to the US contingent of about 65,000. But amid a debate in Washington over expanding the war, in which chief Afghan war planner General Stanley McChrystal is pushing for 40,000 more troops, the small size of the proposed British increase and the caveats Mr. Brown placed on it demonstrate that a large increase from other allies to match any new US commitment is unlikely.

Europe's standing armies are much smaller than that of the US. Britain, France, and Germany have collectively about 350,000 active duty soldiers. The US army has about 550,000.

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European leaders, who by and large have remained supportive of the war even as polling shows most of their citizens are turning against it, are now waiting to see which way President Obama jumps on the troop request before taking new positions of their own.

Mr. Brown on Wednesday said Britain will up its troop total in Afghanistan to 9,500 provided the British military properly equips the soldiers, if more troops are recruited into the Afghan national army and if he sees that other NATO countries are "bearing their fair share" of the troop burden.

The first point, on proper equipment, reflects the political fire that Brown has taken for poor armor issued to troops and run-down helicopters and other equipment.

Currently the NATO Afghan operation has more than 100,000 troops (65,000 of them are American.) At the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Red Army had approximately 120,000 soldiers.

What about France and Spain?

If Brown's announcement is designed to push Spain, France, and other European states to take a greater share of responsibility, 500 is no a rallying figure. Speculation in Paris ran to whether Brown is anteing up 500 troops now in order not to send a substantially higher number later or if they are being sent mainly to give rest to the current, exhausted British forces in southern Helmand province, where fighting with the Taliban has been fierce.

"The understanding in continental Europe is that we don't have an answer to a question that hasn't been posed," says Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Obama has still not made up his mind about what his strategy is. We aren't going to put the cart before the horse. American pressure on Europe won't work without an understanding of what we are doing in Afghanistan."

Sources in the German foreign ministry say that Germany has not been pressured by Washington for more troops; US diplomats said early in the Obama administration that he was aware that German chancellor Angela Merkel would not send further soldiers in an election year. Germany is currently the third largest contributor to the force, with about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan.

The White House is this week debating a middle ground between a strategy advocated by Vice President Joseph Biden to narrow the focus to a fight against remaining Al Qaeda forces – or to go broader in a deployment to reshape Afghanistan into a hearts and minds military-civilian campaign, reportedly backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. A third option is an Afghanization strategy – to build up the Afghan army.

The first option, a fight against Al Qaeda, is seen in Europe as a recipe for further withdrawal of its troops – a replay of 2003's Operation Enduring Freedom, a strike-heavy approach.

Some 50 British troops have died in Afghanistan since June; the Tory party and press have attacked Brown heavily for a deployment he inherited from Tony Blair.

"One thing we do not want... is a status quo stabilization approach," says Heisbourg. "The status quo isn't working. It means since 2003, every year, more Taliban; every year, more deaths.

"It is merely stupid to say that NATO can't fail; it is now failing."

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