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European allies muster troops to back US Afghan drive

Brussels — NATO’s European nations mustered troops on Thursday to rally behind a new US drive to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with 2010 a pivotal year to seize back the initiative.

Ahead of talks between NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Italy said it would probably send around 1,000 soldiers, after Albania offered 85, and press reports suggested Poland could send 600 more.

As the pledges came in, the German parliament was debating an extension to the mandate of its 4,300 contingent, the third largest in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain, but operating in the less volatile north.

However Germany will not increase forces until after an international conference on Afghanistan in London in late January, when the United Nations, the EU and others will commit to a parallel civilian effort.

US President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday the dispatch of an extra 30,000 troops — the first marines will leave in less than two weeks — and has called on his partners in Afghanistan to come up with 5,000-7,000 more.

"Based on what we have heard in just the last 24 hours, I think we can confidently say that we will surpass that amount, we are beyond the 5,000-figure," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told reporters.

He said that more than 20 nations of the 43 involved in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had signalled that they would up their contribution.

Some 1,500 troops, 700 of them British, are part of the security force sent for the August elections and who will no longer leave.

The resources are part of a new strategy drawn up by the top US and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, to protect Afghan civilians and drive a deep wedge between the insurgents and the public.

"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse the insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)… risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," he wrote in his assessment of the conflict.

NATO diplomats say the US plan has been broadly welcomed in the corridors of the military alliance’s Brussels headquarters, and the ministers are keen to hear from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday.

Obama’s approach sets a number of benchmarks for the Afghan government to fight corruption, but also for progress against the extremist fighters to be made, and for allies to stump up funds and trainers to build the national army.

The president aims "to target the insurgency at the point in which it is strongest to take back the initiative. We will do that in the course of 2010," a senior US official said ahead of the NATO talks on Afghanistan Friday.

In order to do that Kabul will have to improve governance and battle corruption; keys to winning back the confidence of citizens which was sorely undermined by the fraud-marred elections on August 20.

Obama has also committed to begin conditionally withdrawing US forces from mid-2011, pressuring Kabul but also allies concerned about the international reach of Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.

A plan to build the Afghan police and army — which commanders have recommended should be built up to 400,000 personnel by 2013 — will now only advance based on the willingness of allies to provide funds and trainers.

"We’re not only looking at troops, we’re looking at trainers and trust fund moneys to meet that requirement," the US official said. "The latter two are the responsibility primarily of the international community."

Thursday’s talks at NATO will focus on enlargement, notably the efforts of Georgia and Ukraine to join, and the ministers — at a working dinner — are to decide whether to advance Montenegro and Bosnia towards membership.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica