BRUSSELS — The top U.S. military officer says NATO should be prepared to move fast to deploy additional forces if President Trump and other heads of states agree to bolster the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, where government forces are locked in a stalemate with the Taliban.
“What I asked my counterparts to do today is be prepared to act quickly,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday after a meeting with NATO’s military leaders. “If the political decision is to do more, let’s do more as fast as we can.”
The decision is urgent because Afghanistan is entering the so-called fighting season, when snow melts and mountains become passable, allowing the Taliban to increase attacks.
“We’d like to see if we (can) contribute to the Afghans’ success in the summer of ’17,” Dunford told a small group of reporters as he flew back to the United States after the meeting.
Wednesday’s meeting will help set the stage for next week’s gathering of NATO leaders, including Trump, in Brussels. The White House has said the president will make a decision on whether to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan after that meeting.
Dunford and other NATO leaders did not discuss numbers, but the top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, has said several thousand more troops are needed to turn the tide of war there. He has described the war with the Taliban as a stalemate.
The additional troops would allow Nicholson to provide more advisers to Afghan forces. The U.S. and its allies are also providing some air support to Afghan forces.
Any increase in forces would not change NATO’s mission, which is limited to advising and providing other support to Afghanistan’s military. The United States and its allies are not in a direct combat role. NATO has about 13,500 troops in Afghanistan, including about 9,000 American forces.
In 2014 Afghanistan’s military took the lead role in the war against the Taliban as the United States and NATO continued to reduce the number of troops there.
Since then Afghan forces have taken heavy casualties and the Taliban have expanded their control over some parts of the country.
“The Afghan security forces are faced with a challenging security environment,” said Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of NATO’s military committee.
The decision about troop levels in Afghanistan comes as NATO is considering a range of options that will broaden its mission to adjust to growing threats from terror organizations. The alliance was born decades ago during the Cold War to defend against the former Soviet Union.
NATO leaders are considering playing a larger role in Iraq, where the alliance recently deployed a small training mission to work with Iraqi forces.
“There is general agreement that NATO can and should do more,” Pavel said.
Dunford said the alliance may be in a position to provide long-term assistance to Iraq’s security forces once the militants have been driven from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the level of violence has been reduced.
Any decision, however, would have to wait until Iraq’s government makes a formal request for continued support for its military, Dunford said.
“This is a global trans-regional threat,” Dunford said of terror groups. “We need a global trans-regional network” to combat it. “NATO is an important part of that network.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump criticized NATO, suggesting the alliance had become obsolete. But since taking office he and members of his administration have praised the alliance and recognized its value.
“You can be supportive of NATO while recognizing that NATO has to transform to reflect the character of war in the 21st century and more equitable burden sharing,” Dunford said. Burden sharing refers to the amount of money each member country is required to spend on their militaries. Some nations have not met the minimum NATO requirement of 2% of their gross domestic product.
“If you look at all the statements from the United States from January 2017 to today they have all been very strong in support of NATO,” Dunford said.