By David Brunnstrom
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO's top defense officials will examine proposals Saturday for a big troop surge to contain Afghanistan's escalating insurgency but any such move hinges on a decision by the U.S. president, NATO military officials said.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has recommended sending at least 40,000 additional troops and trainers as part of a beefed-up counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, something being considered by the administration of President Barack Obama.
Military representatives on NATO's Military Committee, who provide assessments for their political masters, met McChrystal on a three-day visit to Afghanistan that ended Thursday.
They said his detailed recommendations would be discussed in Brussels Saturday by NATO's chiefs of defense staff before an October 22-23 meeting of alliance defense ministers in Bratislava.
"Step by step we lead to the final decision, which belongs to the top political level -- Obama in the United States and Obama's equivalents in alliance countries," the committee's chairman, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, told Reuters.
Di Paola said there was a "very converged" opinion that McChrystal -- who has described the situation in Afghanistan as "serious" and warned of failure without a change in strategy -- had given "a quite fair depiction of the situation."
The Italian admiral said the alliance needed to follow McChrystal's call for a fundamental shift in approach to win hearts and minds by better protecting Afghan people.
He declined to speculate on troop surge, but said there was no talk about a reduction and alliance members were expected to boost efforts to train Afghan security forces, which they hope will eventually be able to take over from the NATO mission.
"That ... will definitely have to find a positive response by allies. Definitely it would require more assets to be brought for the Afghan security forces," he said, adding that these would have to include equipment.
DECISION HINGES ON OBAMA
Military Committee members told Reuters the response of others in the 28-nation NATO alliance to McChrystal's call, and of partners in the 42-nation NATO-led force, hinged on Obama.
"Inevitably everybody is waiting for a U.S. lead," said one senior European officer, who did not want to be identified.
Obama has faced conflicting calls, notably one backed by Vice President Joe Biden, to hold steady on troop levels and concentrate on attacking al Qaeda targets on the Afghan-Pakistan border and in Pakistan with drones and special forces.
U.S. officials say Obama could take a hybrid approach, increasing troop numbers by a more modest amount and using a more concerted campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban "safe havens."
Washington already has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, a figure expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other nations, mainly NATO allies, have some 39,000 troops in the country.
In eastern Afghanistan, which has seen a big increase in U.S. troops this year, Military Committee members heard that the approach backed by McChrystal had already brought some success.
"We have made progress, (but) I'm not going to sugar-coat it," U.S. Colonel David Haight said at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, south of Kabul.
He said the hope was a big spike in violence seen this summer would not be as high next summer, "and the summer after that maybe it will be a little blip ... because there's been an actual change in how we are doing things."
However, a European NATO officer questioned how willing many European countries would be to send more troops, or to follow McChrystal's advice on the need to drop defensive "garrison postures" and get closer to the people to win them over -- even at the risk of higher casualties in the short term.
"Not many are willing to commit more troops. And how many are going to be comfortable with the prospect of higher casualties when they already have problems with public opinion," that officer said.
Other senior officers expected McChrystal to present a range of options, and analyses of what could be achieved with each.
They said it seemed Obama wanted to wait for clarity over Afghanistan's disputed August 20 election before taking a decision, but expressed doubt he would follow Biden's option.
"There is an argument for a certain level of mass, and the more troops you have the safer you are," one said.
"The alternative is to turn inwards and try to consolidate what you have and hope to convince the population you can eventually prevail, but everything would take much longer."