WASHINGTON – NATO defense ministers signaled broad support Friday for a robust counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, adding to the momentum favoring a substantial U.S. troop hike.
Without discussing troop levels, NATO ministers meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, endorsed the strategy put forward by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. The alliance rejected competing proposals to narrow the military mission to simply fighting the remnants of al-Qaida.
“The only way to ensure that Afghanistan does not become once again a safe haven for terrorism is if it is made strong enough to resist the insurgency as well,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general.
As the Obama administration reviews U.S. strategy, the NATO endorsement is likely to add impetus to McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops to protect the Afghan people, shore up the government and counter Taliban militants.
It is unlikely the defense ministers would have issued such an unambiguous endorsement of McChrystal’s plan without at least tacit approval from U.S. officials, who maintain close contact with NATO member governments on the issue.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates attended the meeting but made no attempt to counter the move by the ministers to throw their backing behind McChrystal. Gates is considered a supporter of McChrystal, but has avoided publicly discussing his views.
“I was in a listening mode,” Gates said at a news conference. “We are here to consult.”
The NATO ministers’ support could prove crucial to the White House. Showing that the administration has the support of its allies would be critical to President Barack Obama’s ability to make his case for a troop increase to the U.S. public.
The endorsement came at a time of increasing confidence among military and other government officials in Washington that the administration will agree to much of McChrystal’s troop request.
It also came days after developments in Afghanistan’s presidential election promised to clear another potential hurdle to a troop increase. President Hamid Karzai’s acceptance of a runoff election could provide the Afghan government with the legitimacy experts say is essential to McChrystal’s strategy.