With no US decision on Afghanistan, what will NATO discuss?

NATO defense ministers are meeting Friday, even though everyone is waiting on the US to decide whether it will send more troops to Afghanistan.

Petr Josek/REUTERS
NATO defense ministers meet before a dinner event Thursday in Bratislava, Slovakia. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged member states Thursday to step up efforts to train and equip Afghan forces, warning that inaction would have serious consequences.

NATO allies in Afghanistan are in strategic limbo as they await a decision from the Obama administration on its strategy and the troops needed to implement it.

That may make it difficult to discuss anything of any substance at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Bratislava, Slovakia, Friday, where Topic A will be the mission in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates touches down there Thursday evening on his way home from stops in Hawaii, Tokyo, and Seoul. Mr. Gates acknowledged that NATO allies have many questions about how the US will proceed, but says there is still plenty to discuss since the future of the Afghanistan mission isn't only about what the US does or doesn't do.

"The reality is this is an alliance issue," he told reporters traveling with him. "Having a discussion of that and the fact that this is a continuing shared responsibility makes it entirely appropriate to have that conversation in Bratislava before decisions are made by the United States."

The debate over Afghanistan at the White House is chewing over the flawed election results in Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, White House officials indicated the issue of the disputed election results would have to be resolved before the US could make a decision. A runoff election is now expected Nov. 7. Gates appeared to push back, however, saying that a resolution was not necessary to make a decision about sending more US troops.

"We need to be realistic that the issues of corruption and governance that we are trying to work with the Afghan government on are not going to be solved simply by the outcome of a presidential election," Gates said during a stop in Tokyo Tuesday.

Gates, whose perspective figures prominently in the internal deliberations at the White House, will not say if he has reached a conclusion in his own mind about what the US strategy should be and how many troops are needed. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has asked for as many as 80,000 additional troops.

That leaves a major question during the defense ministerial in Bratislava.

"European governments and parliamentarians who may be asked to vote for additional resources at some point are all waiting to see exactly what the US decides to do in the wake of the McChrystal assessment," Alexander "Sandy" Vershbow, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, told reporters in Washington earlier this month.

Mr. Vershbow acknowledged that some ally governments, especially those that have suffered high casualties, are hearing arguments from constituents that "the cost of this war isn't worth it." But, he said, he believes most governments are trying to confront the broader security issues that Afghanistan presents once an American decision brings more clarity to the situation.

American officials, including Gates, have at times expressed frustration with the level of commitment from some members of the allied force. But this week, Gates noted that he has seen "more energy and more commitment" by NATO and other allied governments and military since last spring.

"There seems to be a renewed commitment that we have to do this and get this done right, and I think that's good."


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