NATO to discuss Afghan operations amid calls for more troops

NATO defence ministers Thursday were to discuss how to bolster the alliance's mission in Afghanistan amid record civilian casualties and US calls for greater troop numbers in the run-up to the country's presidential elections, dpa reported.

Ahead of the two-day informal meeting in the Polish city of Krakow, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said his country was committed to defeating the Taliban insurgency through the deployment of an additional 17,000 soldiers, announced on Tuesday by US President Barack Obama.

"But there clearly are expectations that the allies must do more as well," Gates said aboard a US military aircraft taking him to Poland.

Gates said providing additional security ahead of the August 20 elections, which see Hamid Karzai attempt to be confirmed as president, was crucial.

However, half-hearted Europeans could also focus on helping Afghanistan's development and its fight against drugs and corruption, the defence secretary said.

"These are all areas where civilian contributions can be made," Gates said.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan currently totals about 55,000 soldiers from 41 countries. Nearly half of these are American.

Germany, Italy and other European countries which face widespread public opposition to the mission are less enthusiastic about committing more troops, particularly to Afghanistan's restive southern regions.

However, Berlin and Rome have both announced plans to boost their contingents ahead of the Krakow meeting.

Germany, which is ISAF's third-largest contributor with about 3,400 troops, is to deploy an additional battalion, consisting of 600 soldiers, to help provide security during the vote.

And Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said during a visit to Kabul this week that his country could increase its troops by 500 to nearly 3,000. Italy could also send an additional force of up to 250 soldiers during the election period, Frattini said.

Gates also suggested that the Afghan elections could provide new impetus for the deployment of the NATO Response Force (NRF), a lean stand-alone military force designed to be quickly deployed anywhere in the world and whose use has been bogged down for years by disagreements within the alliance.

"It's tough to get people to meet their (NRF) responsibilities if there is no notion they will ever be used anyplace, Gates said.

"My notion is this pre-election period in Afghanistan is a good example where the NRF could provide a temporary strengthening of NATO's capability," the defence secretary said.

His British colleague, John Hutton, has meanwhile proposed setting up a standing force of some 3,000 troops to defend the alliance's territory against possible attacks.

Hutton told the Financial Times that such a force would both reassure NATO's Eastern European members, shaken by last year's invasion by Russia of Georgia, and help break the deadlock over the NRF while eventually freeing up more resources for Afghanistan.

The Krakow meeting was also being attended by Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide of Norway.

It takes place in the wake of the publication of a worrying UN report out of Kabul which estimated last year's civilian death toll at a record 2,118, the highest figure since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

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