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NATO under pressure for more Afghan troops

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States will lead pressure on European allies to supply more troops and equipment to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan at NATO talks on Wednesday but could come away frustrated, alliance sources said.

A Canadian soldier from the NATO-led coalition holds his position during a combat operation in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, October 23, 2007. One Canadian soldier was lightly wounded and an Afghan National Army soldier was shot in the shoulder during heavy fighting on Tuesday in the volatile Mowz-e-Madad area of Kandahar province. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Defence chiefs will however reaffirm their commitment to maintaining a 17,000-strong peace force in the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo amid uncertainty over its future.

They could also discuss NATO member Turkey’s threat of incursions into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish separatists.

The familiar U.S. refrain on Afghanistan will have a sharper edge than usual at the two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers in the Dutch coastal resort of Noordwijk because key nations are under public pressure to pull out troops.

The Netherlands is studying whether to extend past August next year the mandate for its 1,600 troops in the thick of the violence in the south, a move that could influence Canada’s decision on renewing the mandate for its force in early 2009.

The Dutch government hopes the meeting on its home soil will help convince a sceptical public and parliament of the need for the mission. It is also expected to appeal to allies to offer more troops so that it can at least slim down its presence.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates accused allies on Monday of not living up to past promises on troops, equipment and army trainers, setting the tone for what could be fraught talks.

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“The secretary does not seek to single out or embarrass any one nation but remind this powerful alliance of their moral responsibility and collective commitments made at Riga,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said of a pledge made by NATO leaders at a summit in Latvia last year to ensure success in Afghanistan.

RITUAL

While the Czech Republic and Slovakia announced ahead of the meeting that they would add a total of some 160 troops, NATO sources doubt any major reinforcements to the 40,000-strong NATO mission will emerge immediately from the meeting.

“This is not a force generation conference,” said one NATO official, playing down expectations of any significant moves.

Ahead of the meeting Britain has denied suggestions it is preparing reinforcements, as has Denmark. France and Germany have both indicated they cannot do more, and some allies brushed off Gates’ criticism as the standard U.S. line.

“It is part of the ritual. It is part of the American logic to push for more, more. But we do not share that logic, nor do we have the capabilities to do so,” said one NATO diplomat who nonetheless doubted there would be any major row at the meeting.

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.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has mushroomed in size during that time, partly because the United States has put troops under its command and partly because of reinforcements from other allies.

Yet NATO commanders complain that ISAF is running at about 10 percent below strength, with particularly acute shortages of helicopters and airlift as well as combat troops.

Western armies have repeatedly said they are already overstretched by having to provide troops for multinational missions in Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts in Prague

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