US presses NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan

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NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct 24 (Reuters) The United States led calls for NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan at talks today, but was rebuffed by Germany and alliance sources said other allies were also reluctant.

The familiar US refrain will have a sharper edge than usual at the two-day meeting in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk because key nations such as the Netherlands and Canada are under public pressure to pull out troops.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he would also float the idea of more rotations of national contingents around the country -- a possible way of alleviating the burden on some nations -- but stressed it was a long-term idea.

''We need security and reconstruction and development, that is the wider concept. That's why I think these calls simply for more and more military involvement are misguided,'' German Defence Minister Franz Jozef Jung said.

''We have 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and I think our contribution is significant,'' he told reporters before talks also likely to address possible Turkish incursions into Iraq.

The Netherlands is studying whether to extend the mandate for its 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 1,700-strong force in early 2009.

The Dutch government hopes the meeting on home soil will help convince a sceptical public of the need for the mission, but has not ruled out quitting altogether and will urge allies to offer more troops so it can at least slim down its presence.

''There is no such thing as a free ride to peace and security,'' Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop told fellow ministers as he opened a first session of talks.

''Fair risk and burden-sharing remain the leading principles of this alliance,'' he said, referring to perceptions in Britain, Canada, Netherlands and the United States -- the four countries doing most of the fighting -- that other allies should do more.

FREQUENT ROTATIONS US Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused allies ahead of the meeting of not living up to 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,'' Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

De Hoop Scheffer suggested more frequent rotations around the country, to spread the risks more fairly among allies.

''I'll mention it and I hope that me mentioning it and possibly ministers discussing this will have some impact,'' he told reporters, stressing: ''This is not a plan for the immediate future, this is talking about the longer run.'' Jung announced Germany would triple the number of German military trainers in Afghanistan from just over 100 now, but resisted U.S.

pressure for them to be sent to the south.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia also said ahead of the meeting 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 any significant moves.

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

Worsening violence in Afghanistan was highlighted on Wednesday when a suicide bomber attacked the governor of the southeastern province of Khost. The governor survived but three people including his bodyguard were wounded.

REUTERS AE KN2230

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