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Will Nato summit bring Afghan deal?

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Nato summit venue
Afghanistan will be a priority for the Nato summit in Bucharest

Spring has come early in Afghanistan this year and the warmer weather has brought more fighting between the Taleban and international forces.

This March saw more incidents in the eastern border lands than last March - up more than 20%, according to the statistics.

The commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force says it is because there are more troops out on the ground taking the offensive, and more instability over in Pakistan.

Despite all the protests, Gen Dan McNeill has seen troop levels increase in the year since he took the job and now it is up to 47,000 from 40 nations, but he still wants more - and he hopes the politicians in Bucharest will deliver.

'Increased numbers'

"This is an under-resourced force and the alliance has to do better at resourcing it," he said in a BBC interview ahead of the summit.

"We need increased numbers - in manoeuvre forces, flying machines and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.

"I hope that the politicians, those who meet in Bucharest, those who make those decisions will be generous and some more will come this way."

And for once there is a sense of high expectations going into the Nato conference.

For many months the commanders have been saying they could do more if they had more, but it has fallen on deaf ears.

The US has become more critical of those countries not perceived as pulling their weight - and it does so with more than 35,000 troops in Afghanistan, some working for Nato, others searching for al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders under Operation Enduring Freedom.

Gen Dan McNeill
US Gen McNeill is in command of the Nato forces

There is increasing realisation the mission in Afghanistan can be lost, and the US is digging deep.

Despite the tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, 3,200 US Marines are currently arriving in Kandahar, with 20 helicopters, four fast jets, transporter planes and artillery, ready to take on the Taleban.

It is a mini-surge designed to strengthen the counter-insurgency operation which military commanders believe is working.

Most European nations may be conspicuous by their absence, but France has promised more troops - perhaps up to 1,000.

They would move into the east and free up even more US infantry to head south, perhaps to support the Canadians who have threatened to pull out if they do not get support in numbers.

Exit strategy

The UK is considering sending up to 600 more troops, and the agonising over costs can't have been made any easier by the crisis in Basra which will delay the planned “draw down” from there, taking away the room for manoeuvre.

Poland will be upping its force significantly, but there certainly are not going to be the kind of offers America has been asking for.

ISAF REGIONAL COMMANDS AND RECONSTRUCTION TEAMS
Countries contributing more than 1,000 troops (1 April 2008):
Australia - 1,100
Canada 2,500
France 1,430
Germany - 3,490
Italy - 2,360
Netherlands - 1,730
Poland - 1,020
UK - 7,750
US - 19,000
Figures approximate
Source: ISAF

The idea that Nato countries and their supporters could come up with an extra 10,000 is laughable, but that is the number currently doing the rounds as what the commander wants.

There could be smaller contributions of helicopters, special forces or training teams to join the already expanding effort to train the Afghan police and army - the future of the country and the exit strategy of the international forces.

But there is also hope in what could be achieved on the fringe of the biggest Nato jamboree in history.

Two secretaries general will be there - Nato's Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Ban Ki-moon of the UN - along with the European Community President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Expanded mandate

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in attendance with his delegation of ministers, and the new UN envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide will also be making friends and trying to influence people.

Afghanistan will be on everyone's lips and this non-military might will emphasise the need for the "comprehensive approach" as it's called.

There's a real understanding Afghanistan will not be won by military means alone and the international community needs, with the Afghan government, to sharpen up their game.

The UN comes with a renewed and expanded mandate to work more closely with the men in uniform and to help bring a sprawling international effort into sharper focus.

Better governance, more effective aid and strong leadership would be considered comprehensive.

And there is the opportunity for that in Bucharest - if the will is there to make it happen.

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