December 2, 2009 2:00 am

US presses allies on troops in Afghanistan

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The US yesterday stepped up its call for other countries to contribute to its military surge in Afghanistan, even as Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, rebuffed a direct appeal from Barack Obama to send up to 1,500 more troops to the region.

The US president was due to reveal his strategy in an address to the nation from West Point military academy last night, amid widespread expectations that he would authorise the dispatch of about 30,000 more US troops, spearheaded by a marine brigade.

"This is an international effort already on the ground in Afghanistan; it has to become more of an international effort as we go forward," said Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, in advance of Mr Obama's address.

"The strategy in some ways has been changed. And I think we're also expecting that we'll get a more significant contribution from allies."

Mr Gibbs added that the president would set out "an accelerated timeline into Afghanistan so that we can talk about transitioning our forces out of there quickly".

But in a telephone conversation with Mr Obama on Monday evening, Mr Sarkozy made clear there would be no immediate and significant reinforcement of France's contingent of 3,750 troops.

The French president told his US counterpart that Paris regarded the training of the Afghan army and police force as its priority but was not yet ready to make any decision on "strengthening our engagement" until an international conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28, Elysée officials said.

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, told Bernard Kouchner, foreign minister, last week that the US wanted France to send 1,500 further troops, Le Monde newspaper reported. The French foreign ministry declined to comment.

The US wants its partners inside and outside Nato to provide 4,000-7,000 extra troops, a total that includes commitments already made, such as 500 British soldiers and up to 1,000 from Georgia, but which is still far from being met.

Washington hopes Germany will also send more than 1,000 further troops after the country renews the mandate of its military mission in Afghanistan in a Bundestag vote this month.

While Mr Sarkozy has been a staunch supporter of France's military presence in Afghanistan, the French government believes it has already played its part after sending a further battalion of 700 troops last year.

Elysée officials said France would consider sending further military and police personnel to help step up training of the Afghan police and army, but would take a decision in light of the undertakings of Hamid Karzai, the newly re-elected Afghan president, in terms of good governance and the fight against corruption.

Yesterday Mr Obama also sought to build support for his decision at home, briefing leading members of Congress from both US parties on his policy ahead of his speech.

Early indications were that Republicans favoured the strategy more than did some members of Mr Obama's Democratic party.

"Those who support a surge in Afghanistan have to get behind the president," said Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official, in a conference call organised by the Republican National Committee.

But in an early attack, Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president, said that Mr Obama's deliberative approach to big decisions projected "weakness".

The White House replies that Mr Obama's measured decision-making avoids the mistakes of the past. Indeed, the administration's internal debate on Afghanistan over the past three months contrasts not just with former President George W. Bush's approach but with Mr Obama's own past practice.

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