France, Germany offer trainers for Afghan army

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NOORDWIJK, Netherlands, Oct 24 (Reuters) Germany and France pledged to send more trainers to bolster the national Afghan army today but US calls for major troop increases went largely unanswered at NATO talks.

The Netherlands, under growing public pressure to pull its 1,600 soldiers out of southern Uruzgan, said it still did not exclude a full withdrawal from the increasingly violent battle with Taliban insurgents.

''All options as far as this government are concerned are still open,'' Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop told a news conference after talks among defence ministers in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk.

Defence Minister Franz Jozef Jung announced Germany would triple the number of military trainers embedded with Afghan army units to over 300, while French sources said France would send 50 trainers to help develop Afghan fighting capacity in Uruzgan.

But Jung rejected US demands for the German trainers to accompany Afghan units into the south, and criticised new US calls for NATO allies to provide more troops themselves.

''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 in comments that highlighted continued transatlantic tensions over the mission.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference he had heard several potential offers from nations to reinforce NATO's 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) but declined to give details.

ROTATION PLAN An alliance diplomat said a total nine countries had indicated in closed-door talks they could increase personnel levels next year but said the numbers involved were limited.

''It is small numbers but politically significant,'' he said.

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.

A senior US official said Washington was still not totally happy but expressed some satisfaction after the meeting.

''... Even though it's hard for us to appreciate, if you look at the evolution of this NATO mission first of all, all 26 of them are doing something, and each one of them is doing more today than they did six months ago,'' the official said.

The Dutch government hopes the meeting on home soil will help convince a sceptical public of the need for the mission, where it is one of a handful of nations including Canada and Britain in the thick of fighting in southern Afghanistan.

A Dutch decision is due next month and could involve cutting its presence rather than a full withdrawal if other nations come forward. The step could influence Canada's decision on renewing a mandate for its 1,700-strong force in early 2009.

NATO wants to train up the Afghan national army to about double its current strength of some 35,000 in the next few years as part of a goal for Afghan troops to take over the brunt of front-line battle by around 2010.

It currently has around 20 teams of between 10-20 trainers embedded with Afghan units but is looking for at least another 26 such teams immediately, plus over 30 more in the future.

In a suggestion aimed at helping nations facing the worst violence, de Hoop Scheffer said he floated the idea of more frequent rotations of national contingents around the country, but stressed the potentially controversial idea was for the long-term.

Reuters AE VP0008

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