NATO under US pressure for more Afghan troops

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NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct 24 (Reuters) The United States today urged its European allies to supply more troops to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan at NATO talks today, but Alliance sources said Washington could come away frustrated.

Defence chiefs meeting in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk will, however, reaffirm a commitment to maintaining a 17,000-strong peace force in the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo amid uncertainty over its future.

They could also discuss NATO member Turkey's threat of incursions into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish separatists.

The familiar US refrain on Afghanistan will have a sharper edge than usual at the two-day meeting because key nations are under public pressure to pull out troops.

The Netherlands is studying whether to extend the mandate for some 1,600 troops in the thick of the violence in the south past next August, a move that could influence Canada's decision on renewing a mandate for its force in early 2009.

The Dutch government hopes the meeting on its home soil will help convince a sceptical public and parliament of the need for the mission. It will appeal to allies to offer more troops so it can at least slim down its presence, but before the talks it left open the possibility of withdrawing altogether.

''The options for the Dutch government remain open -- we leave, we stay, or we stay -- but then in a different way from how it has been so far,'' Deputy Prime Minister Wouter Bos said on his website.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused allies on Monday of not living up to past promises on troops, equipment and particularly trainers for the Afghan national army, seen as crucial to any eventual exit strategy for Western troops.

''The secretary does not seek to single out or embarrass any one nation but remind this powerful alliance of their moral responsibility and collective commitments made at Riga,'' Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said of a pledge by NATO leaders at a summit last year to ensure success in Afghanistan.

RITUAL The Czech Republic and Slovakia announced ahead of the meeting that they would add a total of some 160 troops. A Dutch newspaper report said non-NATO member Georgia could offer 200 more, but NATO sources doubt any major reinforcements for the 40,000-strong NATO mission will emerge from the meeting.

''This is not a force generation conference,'' said one NATO official, playing down prospects of significant moves. Some allies brushed off Gates' criticism as the standard US line.

''It is part of the ritual. It is part of the American logic to push for more, more. But we do not share that logic, nor do we have the capabilities to do so,'' said one NATO diplomat who nonetheless doubted there would be any major row at the meeting.

Western armies have repeatedly said they are already overstretched by having to provide troops for multinational missions in Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Violence has increased sharply in southern Afghanistan over the past two years, the bloodiest period since the Taliban's radical Islamic government was toppled by US-led coalition forces in late 2001, with some 7,000 killed across the country.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has mushroomed in size during that time, partly because the United States has put troops under its command and partly because of reinforcements from other allies.

Yet NATO commanders complain that ISAF is running at about 10 percent below strength, with particularly acute shortages of helicopters and airlift as well as combat troops.

Reuters SG GC1747

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