Bush Pledges to Send More Troops to Afghanistan

By James Gerstenzang

The Los Angeles Times

Saturday 05 April 2008

At the NATO summit, Putin says nonmilitary cargo flights to Afghanistan can fly through Russian airspace.

Zagreb, Croatia - President Bush told a NATO summit that the United States would increase its number of troops in Afghanistan, administration officials said Friday, as the president sought to assure partners of Washington's long-term commitment to the campaign.

U.S. officials previously made it clear that the foreign force of 59,000, including 31,000 Americans, was insufficient. But they had not committed the U.S. to providing more troops.

The president did not specify how many additional troops the U.S. would send.

Meanwhile, as NATO leaders completed their third and final day of meetings in Romania, tensions with Russia rumbled through the gathering. But, in one area of rapprochement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would allow flights of nonmilitary cargo to Afghanistan to fly through Russian airspace.

Bush is expected to dine tonight with Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, and then on Sunday hold a final series of meetings with him before the Russian president leaves office May 7. Putin's successor, Dmitri Medvedev, will join the talks.

Putin praised the overall tenor of Russia's relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but he had often sharp words for specific steps the alliance took.

At a post-summit news conference, Putin said that during a closed-door meeting with NATO leaders, he took issue with their support of a U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He also objected to the declaration that Ukraine and Georgia, which were part of the former Soviet Union, would become members of NATO at some point.

None of the changes, Putin said, helped build trust. He added that the admission of Ukraine and Georgia would be seen in Moscow "as a direct threat" to Russian security.

To Bush's often-stated pledge that expansion of NATO or the deployment of the missile system was not directed at Russia, Putin said, "National security is not built on promises."

Recognizing the degree to which Russia objects to letting its neighbors into the alliance, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters: "NATO enlargement is a contentious issue. The minds do not exactly meet, to put it mildly."

Bush, who flew to Croatia on Friday afternoon, will have lunch today in Zagreb with the presidents of NATO's two newest members, Croatia and Albania, and with the president of Macedonia - all once under Moscow's sway. Macedonia's admission to the alliance was put off at the last minute in an ongoing dispute with Greek officials over the country's name, which is also the name of a region in Greece.

During the summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would deploy an additional battalion, about 700 to 800 troops, to Afghanistan. In addition, Poland, Romania, Spain and Britain pledged to boost their troop numbers there, said Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who attended the summit, told reporters as he flew later to Oman that it was too early to set specific troop numbers for next year.

With a new president to be inaugurated Jan. 20, he said, "the question arises, how can we say that about 2009?"

"All I would say is, I believe . . . this is one area where there is very broad bipartisan support in the United States for being successful" in Afghanistan, he said, according to the Associated Press.

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington on Wednesday that NATO commanders believe the U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan need to add as many as 7,500 soldiers and 3,000 military trainers.


Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Bucharest contributed to this report.