( dpa ) - NATO leaders played down talk of a damaging split over Afghanistan on Thursday, hours after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that NATO was in danger of becoming a "two-tier alliance".
"We are meeting as 26 (member states), and we're in Afghanistan as 26," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at the informal meeting of NATO defence ministers in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
When asked if he thought there was a danger that the alliance could split into a two-tiered body, he replied, "No, I do not, quite honestly."
Late on Wednesday, Gates told the US Senate's Armed Services Committee that "I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not."
The comment came after 10 days of intense diplomatic lobbying, with the US and Britain calling on NATO allies to commit more combat troops to southern Afghanistan, and Canada threatening to pull its men out of the area unless NATO partners stepped up their efforts.
Four of NATO's member states - the US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands - are heavily engaged fighting the Taliban in the south. They have repeatedly called on other NATO allies for reinforcements.
Canada has suffered severe losses, and threatened in late January to pull out of the south unless other states sent in 1,000 more men.
"What we want to see is more of a one-for-all approach, that includes of course burden sharing in the south," Canada's Defence Minister Peter Mackay said.
But some allies - notably Germany, which has over 3,000 men in Afghanistan - refuse to send their men into the south, saying that their political mandate to the troops precludes such an action.
"We have a common responsibility (in Afghanistan), and we will rise up to that together. I think that we are making a full and complete contribution to Afghanistan," Germany's Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung told journalists.
"I don't think there is a danger" of a split within the alliance, he said.
Scheffer praised Germany for its contribution to the 43,000-man International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"I believe that Germany is doing a good job. I know the German parliament wants some limits (on where it deploys its troops). I want maximum flexibility in Afghanistan with all allies," he said.
Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said that there was a "healthy tension" over the issue, and that Gates was using his "right to remind the alliance" of the problem.
Ahead of the Vilnius meeting, NATO officials said that the question of finding extra troops for Afghanistan would not be decided in Lithuania.
Instead, the defence ministers are scheduled to discuss broader plans in Afghanistan and Kosovo, relations with Russia and Ukraine and the build-up to a summit in Bucharest on April 2-4.