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Leaks undermine Afghan support for NATO: UK

LONDON (Reuters) - A leak of thousands of classified U.S. military documents has damaged the ability of foreign forces to gain the support of Afghans against the Taliban, a British military spokesman said on Thursday.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks at a news conference at the Frontline Club in central London, July 26, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Major-General Gordon Messenger told reporters the leak last month by whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks had not given Taliban insurgents a tactical advantage, but the documents’ disclosure of Afghan contacts could deter further cooperation.

“I think the damage that I would highlight is to the Afghans that were named. We rely upon very, very many Afghans who are prepared to nail their colors to the legitimate Afghanistan, and do so sometimes with much courage,” Messenger said.

“If we do anything that undermines that trust, that expression of loyalty, then I think that is going to have an impact,” he added.

Concern is growing over the progress of the unpopular nine-year war in Afghanistan against the al Qaeda-allied Taliban. Recent months have been the deadliest for the 150,000 NATO-led, U.S.-dominated, foreign troops in the country.

Some of the leaked documents allege that Western forces may have tried to cover up civilian casualties, casting the war in a more negative light and angering Washington, which has said the leaks erode its allies’ trust.

The documents also cast a spotlight on concerns that the Pakistani intelligence agency had aided the Taliban.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who is in Britain on a five-day visit, told a French newspaper this week that the international community had lost the battle for “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan.

Britain has the second-largest contingent of foreign troops in the Afghan war after the United States. Governments which have previously committed forces to the operation are coming under increasing pressure to withdraw them.

Canada’s involvement is due to end next year and the Netherlands began pulling its 2,000 troops out on Sunday.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain’s 9,500 troops could start withdrawing as early as next year, part of a plan to draw down the bulk of the troops by 2015.

Messenger said Malaysia and Tonga are expected to send troops to Afghanistan.

Editing by Paul Taylor