Afghan crisis dominates
Arguments over Afghanistan dominated talks among 26 Nato ministers yesterday, with the United States pressing hard for allies to deploy more troops to tackle the Taliban in the restive south.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired a warning shot ahead of the two-day conference in Vilnius, saying failure in Afghanistan threatened the very future of the Nato military alliance.
The message was also reinforced by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on a surprise visit to Afghanistan.
"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 peoples' security, and others who are not," Gates said.
"And I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance, if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse," he said.
"In several cases I've made specific requests of specific kinds of units, and in some named units, and where they needed to go ... I haven't gotten any responses yet. I'm sure I will in Vilnius."
"Frankly, I hope that there will be more troop contributions and there need to be more Afghan contributions," Rice told reporters in the former Taliban capital of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
As Rice and Miliband began their tour, a car bomb struck a Nato military vehicle in the eastern province of Khost wounding three soldiers, the alliance's International Security Assistance Force said.
ISAF did not give the nationalities of the wounded but most foreign troops in the east are US nationals. Police said the attack, similar to scores carried out by the Taliban, was a suicide blast and the bomber was the only victim.
Commanders in Afghanistan have been calling for around 7,500 extra troops to ISAF, which comprises 42,000 troops from 39 countries -- some of them in their most fierce fighting for decades.
More than 6,000 people, including nearly 220 international soldiers, were killed last year -- the worst since the start of the insurgency.
The United States wants Germany, France, Spain and Italy not only to boost troop numbers but also to aid US, British, Dutch, and Canadian forces fighting a Taliban insurgency in south Afghanistan.
However, European allies who argue their forces are already stretched by engagements elsewhere, including in Iraq, Lebanon, the Balkans and Africa.
Germany said this week it would provide some 200 troops to replace a Norwegian contingent acting as a reserve rapid reaction force in northern Afghanistan.
But Berlin is unlikely to go any further in beefing up its existing 3,100-strong mission or of deploying more in the south, despite calls also made by Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
With 1,600 troops stationed mainly in Kabul, so far France has offered little more than several dozen military instructors to train Afghan national army forces in south Afghanistan where it carries out bombing missions against Taliban positions.
Paris did however hint that President Nicolas Sarkozy might announce further contributions at a NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2-4.
Meanwhile Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly warned that Ottawa will pull its 2,500 soldiers out of restive southern Afghanistan if it does not get reinforcements from other Nato nations.