KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – The NATO-led force in Afghanistan would be more effective if member countries lifted restrictions that prevent their troops from fighting insurgents in the country's restive south, a senior Canadian officer said Saturday.
Many of the 37 troop-contributing nations serving with the 31,000-strong force have refused to join the fight against Taliban and other insurgents in the south, leaving the task to Canadian, American, British and Dutch soldiers.
The French, German and Italian forces patrol relatively quiet sectors in the north under self-imposed limitations, known in NATO as "caveats," that keep them out of combat operations.
Brig. Gen. Tim Grant, in charge of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, said that if the commander of the NATO-led force "had more flexibility in the deployment and the use of all the troops here I think it would be better for everyone."
"The issue is not necessarily having more troops stationed here on a permanent basis," Grant told The Associated Press in an interview at this sprawling southern military base. "But if there are situations ... when it is important to have different capacities, different capabilities on the ground, that is when (the NATO) commander needs to be able to move troops."
Speaking Friday in Quebec City, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also urged lawmakers from the alliance's member nations to lean on their governments to remove troop restrictions. He said national caveats are understandable, but ultimately divisive.
At least 289 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion in late 2001 to oust the Taliban regime for hosting Osama bin Laden.
At least 42 Canadians have been killed in the war, including 34 soldiers this year alone. Britain has lost at least 40 soldiers, while the Netherlands has had four deaths.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that the task of reconstructing his country remained largely unfinished, urging developed countries and international aid agencies to renew their commitment of support.
"To those of our partners who may be pondering their continued involvement in Afghanistan, I say the job is not over and the stakes are still very high," Karzai told leaders from some 19 countries gathered in New Delhi for a conference on Afghanistan.
The participants included Afghanistan's neighbors — Pakistan, Iran and China — and members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations.
"I hope the conference will bring to Afghanistan what we so badly need: assistance, investment and lasting stability," Karzai said.
He also said fighting extremism requires collective effort, a comment possibly aimed at Pakistan, which has come under increasing pressure to crack down on Taliban and Al Qaeda militants operating along its border with Afghanistan. Usama bin Laden is among those believed to be hiding along the porous frontier.
On Friday, Karzai said at a news conference that Afghanistan was not blaming Pakistan for the rise of violence in the country's south. "We are seeking help from the government of Pakistan," he said.
Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in the last year, the deadliest since the ouster of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces in late 2001. More than 3,700 people have died from insurgency-related violence, and insurgents have set off a record number of suicide and roadside bombs.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the conference that rising violence had not only undermined the country's security but was hindering ongoing development efforts.
"Dealing with this challenge is a collective responsibility," Singh said.
The two-day meeting was expected to address ways to encourage regional cooperation in fighting the drug trade that flows through Afghanistan and to address the issue of scarce shared water resources, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.