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U.S. To Push NATO To Focus On Afghanistan

European countries are expected to come under increased U.S. pressure to send troops to Afghanistan at high-level NATO talks which open here Thursday after Washington announced it would send an extra 17,000 soldiers there.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was expected to press his 25 NATO counterparts at the two-day talks to contribute more troops or move them to more dangerous areas to regain the initiative from Taliban guerrillas and other insurgents and shore up the increasingly shaky Afghan government.

The reinforcements would be deployed this spring and summer. The U.S. already has over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Non-NATO member Australia welcomed the extra forces and said it could also send more soldiers if European countries agree to do the same, Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said ahead of the talks in Krakow.

"We'll of course always consider any request from our closest ally, but we've been determined not to do more until under-committed NATO countries are prepared to do more," Fitzgibbon told Sky TV by telephone from Dubai.

With 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, Australia is the biggest contributor of any country outside NATO.

The NATO allies will be expected to contribute troops to boost security during this summer's electoral campaign. They will also be urged to contribute military training teams to work with the Afghan security forces, diplomats said.

A new report from the RAND Corp. think tank said a new strategy is needed that would have the international troops train Afghan forces rather than directly confront militants. "It is unlikely the United States and NATO (on their own) will defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan," it says.

Gates will also seek more helicopters and transport planes to fill shortfalls in NATO's force in Afghanistan, officials said.

The meeting in Krakow coincides with intense diplomatic efforts to secure new supply routes for the NATO forces in landlocked Afghanistan, as an alternative for current corridors through Pakistan which have become increasingly vulnerable to rebel ambushes.

Russia is a key transit route for overland logistics lines, and the new U.S. administration has acted quickly to relieve tensions with Moscow sparked by last summer's Russo-Georgian war and by plans to set up a missile shield.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Russia had offered NATO the use of its territory for shipments of military supplies for Afghanistan, and that the alliance had accepted.

"Additional flexibility through a northern route would be welcome," Appathurai said.

But Moscow, wary of any boost in the U.S. military presence in former Warsaw Pact states, wants Washington to reciprocate by scrapping the anti-missile project, a move that would strain America's ties with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Other topics on the packed agenda in Krakow include strategies for streamlining the alliance's command structure and redefining its doctrine to encompass out-of-area operations such as the anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast.

The ministerial meeting will set the stage for NATO's 60th anniversary summit in April in Strasbourg, France. It will be President Obama's first meeting with the leaders of all 26 alliance states and other countries participating in alliance programs or contributing forces to Afghanistan.

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