NATO rallies behind US troop surge

BRUSSELS: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew into Brussels Friday to nail down European backing for a troop surge inAfghanistan that commanders say should turn the tide of the war by mid-2010.

Clinton is to meet fellow NATO foreign ministers after European nations rallied behind the new US drive to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with the costly war now in its ninth year.

"We're going... to have a number of public announcements to additional troop commitments, additional civilian assistance and development aidas well," she said on the plane bringing her from Washington.

The US-led coalition needed "more combat forces and more trainers, but there's not as big a distinction between those two... because the best way to create a fighting unit is through partnering in combat," Clinton said.

US President Barack Obama announced Tuesday he was dispatching an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan -- the first marines will leave in less than two weeks -- and has called on his allies to come up with 5,000-7,000 more.Related article: Training key to victory in Afghanistan

"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 in Brussels.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned Friday that now is a "vital time" for NATO and the Afghan government to seize back the initiative from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"We are now at a vital time, and we all know that in the 1990s Afghanistan was the incubator of international terrorism, the incubator of choice for global jihad," he said, ahead of talks with his NATO counterparts in Brussels.Related article: 'Vital time' for Aghanistan

"It's very important that we make progress at this time," he told reporters. "We know that the stakes are very high indeed."

More than 20 nations of the 43 involved in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have signalled they would increase their contribution, he said.

Italy said it would send 1,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan next year, which the White House hailed as demonstrating "the firm resolve of NATO allies and ISAF partners to succeed in our shared Afghan mission."

Albania offered 85 more troops and Poland suggested it could send 600 more.

Germany extended for one year the mandate of its 4,300-strong contingent, the third-largest in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain, but did not increase its numbers.

France and Germany have both said they will wait until a London conference on Afghanistan on January 28 before taking further action.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, had been pushing for 40,000 troops to engage in the war.Related article: European allies muster troops

He told Afghan lawmakers the extra troops would train local forces to help prepare for a transfer of security, while the rest would fan out across the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is most virulent.

"I believe by next summer you will see significant improvements in security," McChrystal aid.

Obama also said on Tuesday that troops would start withdrawing in July 2011.

"It's very clear that the president has given us guidance that in July of 2011, we'll start to transition security responsibility to the Afghan national security forces," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen told CBS News.

"There's no determination of how long that will take... There's no specific guidance with respect to how many. It could be very few, it could be a large number."

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also revealed that Obama had approved the possible deployment of an extra 3,000 troops on top of the 30,000 already given marching orders. They will join some 70,000 US forces already on the ground.

If the pledges are met, international forces and the Afghan army could total almost 300,000 troops by the middle of next year, around 10 times more than ISAF estimates of the number of Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other militants.

NATO diplomats say the US plan has been welcomed in the corridors of the military alliance's Brussels headquarters.

But Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbour fighting its own battle against Islamist insurgents, has not yet backed the plans.

"We are studying that new policy. We need more clarity on it," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Pakistan media expressed alarm over talk of a withdrawal date, worrying it would embolden the Taliban. The Daily Times said it was concerned the United States would "cut and run."

Obama's approach sets a number of performance benchmarks for the Afghan government, but also insists that progress against the extremists be made, and that allies stump up funds and trainers to build the national army.

Washington and its allies are also calling on Kabul to improve governance and battle corruption to win back the confidence of citizens following the fraud-marred August election that returned President Hamid Karzai to power.