NOORDWIJK, Netherlands (Reuters) - Nine nations including Germany and France pledged to send more military personnel to Afghanistan but U.S. calls for major troop increases were only partly answered at NATO talks on Wednesday.
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 against Taliban insurgents.
“All options as far as this government are concerned are still open,” Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop told a news conference after talks among Defense ministers in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk.
Defense Minister Franz Jozef Jung announced Germany would triple the number of military trainers embedded with Afghan army units to over 200, while French sources said France would send 50 trainers to help develop Afghan fighting capacity in Uruzgan.
But Jung rejected U.S. demands for the German trainers to accompany Afghan units into the south, and criticized renewed U.S. 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,” Jung said in comments highlighting transatlantic tensions over the mission.
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 U.S.-led coalition forces in late 2001 with some 7,000 killed across the country.
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.
An alliance diplomat said 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.
Van Middelkoop confirmed that non-NATO Georgia had offered to send 200 troops to Uruzgan. Other nations cited as offering personnel included NATO membership hopefuls Albania and Croatia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia announced ahead of the meeting that they would add a total of some 160 troops.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who before the meeting accused allies of leaving gaps in the NATO force by not fulfilling pledges of troops and equipment, voiced tempered optimism.
“I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied but I would say that today was considerably more positive day than I anticipated,” he said.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell noted of an estimated 10 percent shortfall in NATO resources in Afghanistan: “There is still a long way to go.”
The Dutch government hopes the meeting on home soil will help convince a skeptical public of the need for the mission. 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 frontline fighting by around 2010.
It currently has around 36 teams of between 10-50 trainers embedded with Afghan units but is looking to double that.
Additional reporting by Gilbert Kreijger, Ilona Wissenbach and Yves Clarisse