PARIS (Reuters) - European leaders were quick to offer verbal support on Wednesday for U.S. President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, but in less of a hurry to commit new troops to an uncertain and deadly military campaign.
Faithful U.S. ally Britain was first off the mark, promising to send 500 extra soldiers even before Obama made his long-awaited policy speech on Tuesday in which he said he would send 30,000 more American troops.
Obama said the reinforcements were necessary to speed up the battle against Taliban insurgents, secure key towns and train Afghan security forces so they could take over and clear the way for the United States to begin to reduce forces in 18 months.
The U.S. goal is to prevent Al Qaeda militants allied with the Taliban from using the mountainous South Asian country as a base for attacks on the West and its allies in the Middle East.
The new deployment will take the number of American troops in the war zone to 98,000, while Britain, the number two contributor, will boost its contingent to about 10,000.
U.S. officials have said Washington is seeking 5,000 to 7,000 more troops from allies. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected non-U.S. participants in the NATO-led Afghan mission to provide at least 5,000 extra troops.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged other coalition members on Wednesday to unite behind Obama and said Britain would “play its full part in persuading other countries to offer troops to the Afghanistan campaign.”
But despite the drumbeat from London, the response from continental Europe was cautious as leaders sought to give Obama positive signals while placating their own voters, who are increasingly skeptical of the Afghan war.
Germany, the third-biggest contributor with 4,400 troops in Afghanistan, signaled that it stood ready to do more police training but could not commit more troops before a strategy review early next year.
“(Obama) also took his time to work out the speech and his strategy and we will take our own time to assess what he said and discuss this with our allies,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
“We Germans are ready to do more in the area of police training, because that is the only route to self-sufficient security, to a handover of responsibilities,” he said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Obama’s speech “courageous, determined and lucid” and said France would “look at its contribution to international strategy, giving priority to the training of Afghan security forces.”
France, the fourth-biggest contributor with 3,750 soldiers in the region, had said days earlier it would not dispatch any more forces, so Sarkozy’s statement marked a change of tone.
He said he would review his position after a meeting of NATO countries this week and a U.N.-sponsored conference in London on January 28, offering Obama the hope that even if Paris did not send more combat troops, it might offer extra military trainers.
In Rome, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy would send more troops, but declined to give numbers or a timetable. He promised Italy would “do a lot” and urged other Europeans to do likewise, presenting their reactions as lukewarm.
“France gave an uncertain response, Germany is taking its time and Britain will perhaps give a minimal contribution,” Frattini said. Italy has 2,795 troops in Afghanistan.
In Warsaw, the defense ministry said the Polish government would like to send an extra 600 soldiers to Afghanistan but warned that the plan was subject to approval by the president.
Poland has 2,000 troops there and President Lech Kaczynski is expected to approve any request to increase that number.
Reporting by Michael Holden in London, Paul Carrel in Berlin, Crispian Balmer in Paris, Valentina Rusconi in Rome, Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw, writing by Estelle Shirbon