KABUL — Europe may send 5,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, Britain's prime minister said Friday — affirming support for the NATO mission as the Obama administration nears a decision on increasing American troop levels.
The announcement came as the Taliban struck again in the capital. A suicide car bomber blasted a U.S. convoy near an American military base in Kabul, injuring nine American soldiers and 10 contract security guards. Three Afghans were killed in the attack — the biggest in Kabul in the last two weeks.
Brown said the NATO strategy must be to encourage a greater role for Afghan forces so that international troops "can start coming home."
His remarks were made a day after he met with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The NATO chief said that other allied nations have privately pledged more help, but Rasmussen stopped short of saying that countries would send more troops.
"We need our other NATO allies to help," Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC in a London interview.
He said he has been contacting governments both inside and outside the 45-member NATO-led coalition, asking them to send more soldiers to train and mentor Afghan forces so they can take responsibility for security in their own country. He estimated as many as 5,000 troops could be raised from that effort.
Brown has already agreed to send 500 more soldiers to Britain's 9,000-member force in Afghanistan, despite declining support for the war among the British public.
His assurances that other countries would boost their own troop numbers appeared to be an attempt to show the British public that others are willing to assume a heavier burden in Afghanistan, despite public unease over rising casualties and an Afghan government perceived as corrupt and resistant to reform.
"There has got to be burden-sharing amongst the alliance, and I am sending people around Europe to persuade other countries that they should commit more troops," Brown said. "We are having some success. But as the debate over these last few months has shown, there is a lot more that we have to do."
NATO said Friday that more troops and resources are needed, but other countries are unlikely to commit more forces until Obama announces his decision.
In Tokyo, Obama said Friday he would soon announce his plan for Afghanistan. He told reporters that he has taken time to examine a new strategy because he wants "to get it right."
Two of his top advisers split on whether to increase U.S. troop numbers, which currently stand at 67,000 — by far the largest contingent.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his top commander in Afghanistan, wants tens of thousands more troops to turn back the resurgent Taliban and shore up the government of President Hamid Karzai. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, opposes deploying more troops, arguing that they would make the Afghan government more reliant on the U.S.
Republicans in Congress have increased pressure on Obama to commit more forces to the war he inherited from President George W. Bush. The U.S. and its Afghan allies ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. But the hardline Islamist movement rebounded after the Bush administration shifted resources in 2003 to Iraq, believing Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction which were never found.
The two wars have strained U.S. ground forces — another factor in Obama's deliberations.
On Friday, the Army said in Washington that a new survey found that individual soldier morale in Afghanistan was about the same as previous studies, but that "unit morale rates ... were significantly lower than in 2005 or 2007," much of it due to the stress of more combat and the effects of multiple tours to war zones here and in Iraq.
Germany's new defense minister said his country would send more than 100 extra soldiers to Afghanistan in January, joining more than 4,360 German troops already in the country.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing of the convoy Friday, the biggest attack in the capital since Oct. 28, when Taliban gunmen stormed a guest house full of U.N. workers. Eleven people died in the two-hour battle, including five U.N. staff members and the three attackers.
Friday's blast occurred about 8 a.m. local time near Camp Phoenix, a supply base on the eastern edge of Kabul which houses troops training Afghan soldiers and police. The blast shattered several civilian cars parked nearby and set several vehicles ablaze.
However, casualties were relatively low because the attack occurred on the Muslim day of prayer when few people are on the streets.
Nabi, a taxi driver who like many Afghans uses only one name, said he was driving down the road when he heard a big bang and everything went dark.
"I just managed to take myself out of the area," Nabi said as blood from minor cuts dripped down his cheeks. "I don't know what happened then, but the attack was on the foreigners." ——
Associated Press Writers Amir Shah, Deb Riechmann and Elena Becatoros in Kabul and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.