Most of NATO's member nations have said they are willing to offer more military or civilian support to the mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers in Krakow, Poland, Gates said that "19 or 20 countries announced at one point or another in the meetings that they would be increasing their contribution, either on the civilian or the military or the training side."
There were no firm commitments from any of the NATO members. But NATO's supreme commander, John Craddock, said he left the meeting "encouraged and optimistic" that two or three additional battalions numbering several thousand troops would be sent before the Afghan national elections in June.
Canada, which will withdraw all its combat troops from Afghanistan by 2011, hasn't changed its timetable, said Defence Minister Peter MacKay, echoing the Harper administration's stand on the withdrawal.
"Obviously there are other ways we can continue to contribute to Afghanistan and we're doing so," said MacKay. "We currently have a provincial reconstruction team, we have diplomatic contributions, we have training aspects."
MacKay acknowledged that Canada might play a role post-2011 by dispatching more police trainers and civilian workers, though they would likely require the protection of a Canadian military contingent.
Canada has about 2,800 troops serving in Afghanistan, mostly in the volatile Kandahar province.
U.S. sending more troops
U.S. President Barack Obama said earlier this week the U.S. would send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to complement the 30,000 already there. He is expected to dispatch more forces to the war-torn country, where Taliban militants have experienced a resurgence over the past two years.
Tensions between the United States and Pakistan have also been on the rise in recent months. Islamabad has come under increasing pressure to crack down on militants in Pakistan's lawless northwest — parts of which have come firmly under the grip of the Taliban.
On Monday, Pakistan announced it would agree to the imposition of Islamic law in the northwest Swat valley as part of an agreement aimed at restoring peace after an 18-month military campaign.
The pact was spearheaded by a hard-line cleric who is negotiating with the Taliban in the valley to give up their arms.
Political reconciliation 'has to be part of the long-term solution'
Gates said Friday that Washington could accept similar agreements in Afghanistan if the insurgents would lay down their arms and accept the government's terms.
He was responding to a question from a Pakistani reporter about whether the deal could serve as a model for Afghanistan.
"If there is a reconciliation, if insurgents are willing to put down their arms, if the reconciliation is essentially on the terms being offered by the government, then I think we would be very open to that.
"We have said all along that ultimately some sort of political reconciliation has to be part of the long-term solution in Afghanistan," Gates said.
Later, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said: "The secretary is too polite to take issue with the premise of the question, but he was in no way equating the prospect for reconciliation in Afghanistan with whatever deal the Pakistani government may or may not be trying to cut with militants in Swat province."
Gates also said Friday the United States is reviewing its strategy for the Afghan mission, after which it will have a better idea how member countries can help.
"We are trying to develop through this review what those needs are most likely to be and at that point, I believe before the NATO summit, we will be making those requests," Gates said.
The NATO summit, scheduled for April 3-4 in Germany and France, will bring together the leaders of the 26-nation bloc. It will be Obama's first visit to Europe.