By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - U.S. defense and foreign policy chiefs face an uphill fight this week trying to get its allies in Canada and Europe to boost NATO forces and coordinate efforts in Afghanistan in the face of rising Taliban attacks.
Experts say their agenda could backfire if the United States is too strident in its criticism of allies and in pushing for more troops, especially in countries where the public opposes more involvement in Afghanistan.
European countries don’t feel the same urgency over Afghanistan, said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation thinktank.
"The political support is not there for it in European capitals," he said. "Unfortunately many of the Europeans see their contribution in Afghanistan in terms of an armed peace corps rather than as a real war-fighting coalition."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads for London for talks on Wednesday with British Foreign Minister David Miliband and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is set to meet NATO defense ministers on Thursday in Lithuania, where Afghanistan will be high on the agenda.
Rice’s trip is aimed in part at soothing bruised egos after Gates last month criticized NATO forces in southern Afghanistan for their counter-insurgency efforts. British, Dutch and Canadian forces all operate in the south.
Gates has also written to NATO allies pressing them to send more soldiers to southern Afghanistan. Canada has threatened to pull out its 2,500 troops from Afghanistan early next year if NATO does not send in more troops.
One of Rice’s priorities will be to discuss a new international coordinator for Afghanistan, U.S. officials said, after British politician Paddy Ashdown was rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who saw him as having a viceroy role.
"The first step is to try and better organize the international effort," a senior Bush administration official said.
"None of us underestimates the challenges and the real problem in Afghanistan — drugs, corruption, bombs by the Taliban. These are serious problems and it will take a major effort to get at them," said the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
The U.S. official said discussions at a conference in Tokyo this week focused on a new coordinator. New candidates had yet to emerge and there were concerns that Ashdown’s rejection might make it harder.
There are about 29,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, more than half of them under NATO command, and Gates has announced the deployment of an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines in the coming months.
U.S. officials hope that allies will also provide more troops, at least to replace the Marines when they end their seven-month deployment, or drop some of the self-imposed restrictions on their forces doing dangerous work.
"We may not get more numbers, we may get more flexibility. That in itself would be welcome," the U.S. official said.
Two U.S. nongovernmental reports last week warned that Afghanistan could become a failed state and urged world leaders to turn the situation around quickly.
"Unfortunately, particularly in the last few years, there has been a lack of a clear, coherent and unified strategy of the key nations," said Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace, who worked on one of the reports.
There are strategic differences between allies on a range of areas. For example, the United States is pushing for greater counter-insurgency efforts while many Europeans want to train Afghan forces for more traditional policing.
The Europeans opposed aerial spraying of opium fields while the United States supported it but later backed away from the idea when the Afghans rejected it.
"My biggest concern, is that we have inadequate troop strength in Afghanistan. I cannot comprehend how we think we have enough troops given the reality on the ground. We can do clearing operations but we can’t hold the territory," said Christine Fair, an Afghan expert at the RAND organization.
"The Afghans keep saying: ‘When are the rest of you showing up?’" she said.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Howard Goller)