NATO defence ministers gather in the shadow of Afghanistan
(dpa) - NATO's defence ministers travelled to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Thursday amidst a growing dispute over the alliance's commitments in Afghanistan.
The two-day meeting is set to discuss topics ranging from the agenda for the alliance's forthcoming summit in Bucharest on April 2- 4 to relations with Russia and Ukraine and NATO's presence in the troubled region of Kosovo.
But those issues seemed likely to be overshadowed by the debate over NATO's mission in Afghanistan, where it currently leads the 43,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
NATO forces have been engaged in fierce fighting in the country's southern provinces, where Canadian, US and British troops are confronting Taliban fighters.
On January 28, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that his country would pull its troops out of the region by early 2009 unless other NATO allies committed more troops to the volatile south.
Three days later, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrote to all his NATO counterparts, urging them to send more men to the south.
At present, some of the largest contingents in the country, such as Germany's 3,200 men, are not allowed to deploy to the south because of limitations placed on their mandate by domestic politicians.
Germany quickly rebuffed Gates' proposal, offering instead to send 200 combat troops to the relatively peaceful north.
On Tuesday, a study by influential British policy group the International Institute for Strategic Studies warned of a "worrying fragility" in the alliance over Afghanistan.
And on Wednesday, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a "fairer burden sharing" between the allies.