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Rift In NATO Over Afghanistan Forces

Germany's defense minister defended his army's efforts in the north of Afghanistan on Friday, rejecting a written plea from his U.S. counterpart to send troops for NATO-led forces in the volatile south.

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung insisted that German troops will remain in the relatively calm north, a response to a letter from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to all NATO partners reportedly urging them to send more forces to join the fight against Taliban and other militants in southern Afghanistan.

"I have a clear mandate from the German parliament," Jung told reporters. "It consists of 3,500 soldiers serving along the northern border and only helping out in the south for a limited period of time, as needed."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington the letter to Germany was "consistent with what Secretary Gates has spoken about in recent weeks, which is this very strong desire to engage our allies with providing the forces that we need to move ahead in Afghanistan."

The U.K. newspaper Independent reports that leaked comments from an unnamed defense ministry source described the letter from Gates as "impertinent." One official accused the Defense Secretary of trying to inflict "psychological torture" on Germany.

According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the issue was "not up for discussion," in the words of her spokesperson.

The refusal of Germany, along with France, Turkey and Italy, to send significant number of troops to the southern front lines has opened a rift within NATO. Troops from Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have borne the brunt of a resurgence of Taliban violence in the region, with support from Denmark, Romania, Estonia and non-NATO nation Australia.

Gates has been trying to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops and equipment to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, without much success.

"Clearly, the challenge continues to be to provide the forces that NATO has committed to, and that's obviously up to the member nations," Mullen said.

Mullen said the U.S. has "made the case that we need more forces. We've committed American forces ourselves. ... It isn't just rhetoric from our point of view. And we need that kind of assistance from those other countries, including Germany."

He said talks on the matter between Washington and Berlin would continue.

"It's going to be up to the individual states to make decisions about allocation of resources," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. "I won't make a secret of the fact that we are encouraging all of our NATO allies to do everything they can in terms of contributing resources."

But Germany has shown little inclination to reallocate troops.

"If friends need help, then we will respond with support for a limited time - as stipulated in our mandate," Jung said. "But I think that our emphasis needs to remain in the north."

According to Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, the letter from Gates is 1½ pages long and specifically asks for helicopter units, infantry and paratroopers that could join the fight against Taliban militants in the south.

The issue is expected to feature prominently in discussions at an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania, next month.

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