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Gates Asks Iraq Allies To Shift Troops To Afghanistan

LOLITA C. BALDOR | October 8, 2008 05:08 PM EST | AP

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — NATO allies must send either more forces or more money for the fight in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will argue this week as he meets with NATO defense ministers.

The main objective, said Gates, is to increase the size of the Afghan Army, and it will take trainers _ or more money _ to do that.

"My view is, for those who do not have significant troop commitments in Afghanistan ... is for them to consider and contribute to the cost of expanding the size of the Afghan army," Gates said.

On Wednesday, he made his pitch to southeastern European nations, urging leaders to shift their military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan, where their forces are more urgently needed as trainers for the Afghan security forces.

But in meetings Thursday and Friday with NATO defense officials, he is likely to take a longer term view, and press them to think about their future commitments to the struggling, wartorn nation.

Senior defense officials traveling with Gates said the Pentagon chief is most worried about the long-term staying power of some allies _ including those who may take the planned U.S. increase in troop levels as an excuse to decrease theirs. And those who don't want to send more troops are being asked to send cash.

Training tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers comes at a hefty price, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who is traveling with Gates. "Someone's got to pay it. And we are in the process of finding countries who wish to contribute toward that necessary mission."

Gates' pleas, however, come as allied fighters are facing intense scrutiny and some unease in the wake of a series of attacks that have killed civilians. On Wednesday, defense officials acknowledged that a new investigation shows that U.S. strikes against a suspected Taliban compound in Afghanistan on Aug. 22 killed some 30 civilians. Initial U.S. military reports suggested that only a few civilians had been killed.

The report has not been made public, but its conclusion was discussed Wednesday by a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to comment on the matter publicly.

The civilian deaths have sparked outrage among Afghans and strained relations with the government, despite its ongoing need for the allies to battle the insurgency there.

The United States has already begun beefing up its troop strength in Afghanistan, with plans to send Marines before the end of the year, and then an Army brigade early next year. U.S. officials have said they will then send as many as three more brigades in the following months.

"I want to make sure that everybody understands that the increases in U.S. forces are not seen as replacements for NATO contributions," Gates told reporters traveling with him.

He said he wants allies _ both NATO members and those who are not _ to continue to send troops to the war, and particularly to fill the increased need for more trainers for the Afghan security forces.

The U.S. now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 with the NATO-led force, and 20,000 fighting the insurgency and training Afghan forces.

On Wednesday, Gates issued a broad plea to the southeastern European defense ministers at a meeting in Macedonia.

"Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, it will also reinforce your important role in insuring peace and stability around the globe," Gates said during a press conference with the Macedonian minister of defense.

Combined, the 11 members of the Southeastern Europe Defense Ministerial (not counting the United States) have nearly 5,100 troops already in Afghanistan. Only one of the member nations, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has no troops there.

In Iraq, all coalition forces combined other than the U.S., contribute about 6,900 forces. Six of those countries are members of SEDM, and two others participate in the SEDM meetings but are not members. U.S. officials declined to say how many troops each country has in Iraq.

The request resonated with the Macedonians. Philip T. Reeker, U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, said the small country _ which has 77 troops in Iraq and 136 in Afghanistan _ has "indicated an openness" to the idea. He said that as their Iraq deployment comes to an end they are looking at sending more forces to Afghanistan.

The U.S. has made it clear that it will gradually shift more troops to Afghanistan as force levels in Iraq decrease in the coming months. Commanders in Afghanistan have said they need as many as 10,000 more forces, in addition to the contingent of Marines and the Army brigade that have already been ordered to go later this year and early next year.

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