RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to another country that's a top security concern for much of the world. The U.S. is sending an additional 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan. That decision was arrived at reluctantly after the U.S. failed to get NATO nations to increase their own troop numbers there. And it's raising deeper questions about NATO's role in Afghanistan.
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: More than six years after they were toppled, Taliban forces are resurgent. There was an average of 500 attacks each month last year.
Lieutenant General DAVID BARNO (Retired U.S. Army Commander): It appears to be from a distance a much more capable Taliban and a strengthened Taliban from what we faced during the period of time I was there.
BOWMAN: Retired Lieutenant General David Barno was the top commander in Afghanistan from 2003 through 2005.
Lt. Gen. BARNO: Just the size of the engagements, the number of evident casualties that have been inflicted on the Taliban indicate that they are a significantly stronger force.
BOWMAN: And Barno says the U.S. may have unwittingly contributed to that resurgence beginning in 2005 - first, by announcing it was turning over to NATO responsibility for the military operation in Afghanistan; second, by cutting 2500 American combat troops. That sent a message to friend and foe alike, Barno says, that the U.S. was moving for the exits.
NATO commands most of the 54,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, nearly half of whom are American. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted NATO to send about 7,000 more troops. Appearing before Congress just last month, Gates wasn't ready to mince words. With American troops stretched in Iraq, NATO troops were needed in Afghanistan.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point.
BOWMAN: But by last week Gates was ready to do just that. He moved swiftly to approve the added U.S. troops, even though he worried about the message that sent to NATO.
Sec. GATES: I am concerned about relieving the pressure on our allies to fulfill their commitments.
BOWMAN: With violence flaring in Afghanistan, Gates had little choice but to turn to the Marines. At the same time, defense officials complained NATO is not focused enough on the most important part of fighting an insurgency: making life better by creating jobs, clinics and roads. That left Gates in a recent appearance before Congress to question the role of NATO, an alliance created to fight the Soviets.
Sec. GATES: The Afghanistan mission has exposed real limitations in the way the alliance is organized, operated and equipped. We're in a post-Cold War environment. We have to be ready to operate in distant locations against insurgencies and terrorist networks.
BOWMAN: Those problems are spurring several Pentagon reviews about the way ahead in Afghanistan. One option being discussed would give the U.S. an even greater combat role in the country's restive south, now patrolled by Canadian, British and Dutch forces.
Meanwhile, there is also talk of appointing a high-level envoy to better coordinate international aid for Afghanistan. That makes sense to American officers like Colonel Martin Schweitzer. He commands the 4th Brigade Combat Team in Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, where he says more experts are needed to give Afghans a better life.
Colonel MARTIN SCHWEITZER (U.S. Army Commander, 4th Brigade Combat Team): Specifically, we need assistance with the growing development, natural resource development, like natural gas, et cetera, because there's natural gas in the ground here. We need those smart folks to come over here and help us get it out so we can turn it into a product that can help sustain the government and the country.
BOWMAN: A more robust Afghan economy may help cut into Taliban recruitment. But Barno and others cautioned that the Taliban are a regional problem. There's a steady flow of radicalized recruits pouring over the border from Pakistan.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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