NATO extends Afghanistan tours

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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