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NATO focuses on Afghanistan

NATO members faced a daunting list of problems at the start of a meeting of defense ministers, including a US push for more soldiers in Afghanistan.

Heading into the two-day gathering, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday he had largely given up hope that NATO countries would be willing to commit more troops to Afghanistan.

Instead, Gates said he would stress the need for help later this spring and summer to counter militants and improve security for planned elections there, something NATO officials have already said would require 10,000 reinforcements.

He floated the idea of more nonmilitary expansion, such as training Afghan police and deterring opium growers.

"I hope that it may be easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases," Gates said.

Besides the need to enhance security before this summer's electoral campaign, NATO allies also will be expected to contribute military training teams to work with the Afghan security forces.

They will be expected to provide more financial assistance to the cash-strapped government in Kabul and to supply additional military equipment to the Afghan army, which is being expanded from 80,000 to 130,000 troops.

Gates signed a new military cooperation agreement with Poland yesterday, formalizing ties between the special forces operations of both countries. Gates praised Poland's willingness to send troops into harm's way, including about 1,600 in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government would deploy 600 extra troops in the run-up to elections. Germany already has more than 3,500 troops there.

Although Afghanistan is the dominant topic on the crowded agenda of the two-day meeting, ministers were also to tackle issues such as relations with Russia, efforts to streamline the alliance's command structure, and modification of its doctrine to encompass operations such as the anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast.


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