NATO defense ministers back McChrystal choice
June 13, 2009
NATO defense ministers on Friday endorsed a U.S. plan to reshape the command structure for the war effort in Afghanistan, which puts U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in charge of all international security forces operating in the country and installs a new deputy to manage daily operations.
During the two-day conference in Brussels, the U.S. and NATO failed to win pledges of additional troop commitments from its member countries, where there is little support for digging deeper into the nearly 8-year-old conflict with the Taliban.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO secretary general, acknowledged the many challenges the internal security forces face in Afghanistan, which is experiencing more violence now than at any other time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
"Development is not taking root as fast as we would like or as we would hope. We have our eyes fully open to these challenges, meeting them will not be easy," Scheffer said during the start of Friday’s discussions.
However, a plan agreed to during the NATO summit in Strasbourg-Kehl that called for a temporary NATO troop surge in connection with this summer’s elections was firmed up Friday.
"We have confirmed we now have generated the forces we need to support the elections," Scheffer said.
Eight battalions, consisting of between 8,000 and 10,000 troops, "are being deployed to the country to do what we promised to do," Scheffer said.
There were no commitments made to keep those forces in the country past the election.
During the conference in Brussels, NATO defense ministers worked on a range of issues, including an agreement to reduce the size of NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and an extension of its counter-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia. NATO’s maritime security mission was scheduled to conclude later this month, but ministers on Friday agreed to deploy another group of ships to conduct patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.
"NATO will continue to play its role in the fight against piracy," Scheffer said, adding that six nations will take part in the patrols.
Afghanistan, however, was the primary issue for the defense leaders from the 28-nation alliance.
Despite deteriorating security conditions, Scheffer highlighted some areas where there has been improvement.
For the first time, elections to be held later this summer will be led and organized by the Afghans themselves, Scheffer noted. The Afghan National Army also continues to take on more responsibility, he said.
"Our efforts are in a supporting role. The lead actors must be the Afghan people," he said.
To accomplish that, the NATO training mission will center on strengthening the Afghan National Police, which lags behind the Afghan army in effectiveness, Scheffer said. The Afghan police sustain two-thirds of all security force casualties in the country. Better training and equipment for the police is a must, he said.
A plan to send additional radar planes to provide air traffic control for the increased number of military aircraft in Afghanistan also was agreed to Friday, Scheffer said.
With NATO set to reduce the size of its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo — known as KFOR — from 15,000 to 10,000, contributing countries would in theory have more numbers to send to Afghanistan. But the conference didn’t yield any long-term pledges.
In an interview with the BBC before the start of the conference, Gen. John Craddock, NATO’s outgoing supreme allied commander, was explicit in the need for more support from NATO member countries. Craddock also said numerous caveats restricting the actions of some NATO troops negatively impacts the flexibility of commanders on the battlefield as they plan and conduct operations.
"Every day I am frustrated," Craddock told the BBC. "As a commander I want the requirements to conduct the operation as directed filled up. And yet we have not had the entire statement of requirements filled by NATO members or partners."
At the start of discussions Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented his new commander — McChrystal — to the assembled defense ministers.
"Because General McChrystal will command your young men and women in Afghanistan, the secretary general and I thought it would be an appropriate courtesy to introduce him to you defense ministers in person and have him present to hear your thoughts in this meeting," Gates said.
McChrystal, who assumes command Saturday, made only a few brief remarks before listening to the rest of the meeting and then departing for his new post in Kabul.
"I am honored to be selected to command the brave men and women that make up the ISAF. I assure you I take the responsibility very, very seriously," McChrystal said.