NATO Crisis Grows Over Afghan Troops

· US presses Europe to strengthen fighting force· Alliance could split as credibility is threatened

The US yesterday kept up pressure on Europe to contribute more troops to Afghanistan as Nato defence ministers met in Vilnius to discuss what officials now admit is a growing threat to the credibility of the alliance.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, attending the meeting in the Lithuanian capital, said he was disappointed that some countries had not sent combat troops to Afghanistan.

His message was echoed by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, who, with Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, was in Kabul on a visit to frontline troops in Afghanistan. "Frankly, I hope there will be more troop contributions and there needs to be more Afghan forces," she said.

However, Gates toned down the rhetoric amid indications that some countries, notably France, were preparing to send combat troops to the south of the country to confront the Taliban, and that earlier criticism of Germany, whose troops stay in the north of the country, had backfired.

In Washington on Wednesday Gates told the House of Representatives' armed services committee that the alliance could split into countries that were "willing to fight and die to protect people's security and those who were not". He added: "My view is you can't have some allies whose sons and daughters die in combat and other allies who are shielded from that kind of a sacrifice."

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato's secretary-general, said more forces were needed to combat Taliban and al-Qaida violence but dismissed Gates' suggestion that Nato could become a "two-tiered alliance" based on a country's willingness to fight. "I do not see a two-tier alliance, there is one alliance," he said as he arrived for the Vilnius meeting.

Gates said later: "I don't think that there's a crisis, that there's a risk of failure." He added, however, that strengthening the fighting force would help speed defeat of the Taliban militants. The US is looking for countries to fill the gap when 3,200 US Marines leave in 2009 after a temporary deployment there this year.

Peter Mackay, defence minister of Canada, repeated a demand for reinforcements by next year for its 2,500 troops based in Kandahar province, which is near Helmand where the UK has 7,700 soldiers. "We want to see more of a one-for-all approach, including more burden-sharing in the south," Mackay said.

Germany said it would send around 200 combat soldiers to north Afghanistan but would not deploy to the south. There is strong opposition in Germany to the deployment in Afghanistan.

French officials have told the Guardian they are considering deploying troops to join the Canadians in Kandahar. In Paris a spokesman for President Nicolas Sarkozy did not confirm reports that 700 paratroopers could go to the south.

Des Browne, Britain's defence secretary, said other countries were prepared to increase their forces. "I spoke recently to the Polish chief of the defence staff and they're going to increase their forces."

However, defence officials said last night there was a growing realisation within Nato that there was a limit to what even more military manpower could achieve. Officials told the Guardian that burden-sharing should include financial and civil aid as much as military power.

During the visit to Kabul by Miliband and Rice, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, defended his rule, saying the economy and education systems had improved and there was more democratic freedom under the new constitution. "It is not right that Afghanistan was forgotten," he said.

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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