The Pentagon says the agreement on command of NATO operations in southern Afghanistan, which it announced Wednesday, is not finalized. But officials still hope the plan will be approved. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says he was "too emphatic" when he announced the agreement Wednesday. He had said the United States reached agreement with the Netherlands and Britain for those countries to each command the southern Afghanistan effort for a year, starting in November when Canada ends its rotation.
On Thursday, he told reporters it is not "a done deal." Rather, Morrell says Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his British and Dutch counterparts have agreed on the plan, but "it still needs to be approved by the Dutch and British governments," and by the NATO alliance. He said he does not see any reason for the plan not to be approved.
This approach would put an end to talk of expanding the U.S. command zone in Afghanistan to the volatile southern region, and making the assignment permanent, to bring to bear U.S. counterinsurgency experience gained in eastern Afghanistan and in Iraq. In addition, U.S. generals have expressed concern about the original NATO plan to rotate the southern command every nine months, which they believe is disruptive. NATO and U.S. forces have encountered a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan, fueled by support from allies across the border in Pakistan.
On Wednesday, Morrell indicated this pending agreement is designed to ease that problem by going to 12-month tenures, without installing a permanent U.S. command.
"We believe this new arrangement, and our allies clearly do as well because they have agreed to it, will provide greater predictability, continuity, stability in this volatile but vitally important region of Afghanistan," Morrell said.
Morrell also noted that the United States is expected to take a turn commanding the southern Afghanistan region after the Dutch and the British assignments.
That means the United States will not be in command in the key area until more than two years into the expected tenure of General David Petraeus as the head of U.S. Central Command. The command oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, except for the part of the Afghan operation that is run by NATO. Some analysts had hoped General Petraeus might be given more authority in Afghanistan, in order to apply the counterinsurgency experience he gained as commander in Iraq.
At his confirmation hearing before a U.S. Senate committee Thursday, General Petraeus said his first foreign trip as Central Command chief will be to Pakistan to work with officials there on stopping the flow of support to insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan. He also said if confirmed he will do all he can to help the NATO effort inside Afghanistan by keeping in touch with the commanders, urging NATO leaders to send more troops with fewer restrictions on their operations, and by working to improve the training of allied forces in counterinsurgency.
"We can help with the lessons that we have learned, and I think have institutionalized effectively in our military services in the United States in terms of the doctrine, the education of our leaders, the training and preparation of our forces, and even the equipping for them," Petraeus said. "And we can help with that as well."
General Petraeus also repeated statements by senior U.S. officials, including President Bush, who have predicted that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will likely rise from its current level of 33,000 in the coming years, as the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is expected to decline.
The Afghanistan command structure is complicated, with NATO holding nationwide responsibility for counterinsurgency and nation-building, and the United States commanding the NATO eastern region and also separately heading the remnants of the coalition that invaded in 2001 and now primarily hunts for terrorists. US officials have said they are continually looking for ways to streamline the Afghanistan command.