NATO members called on to provide troops, support in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates pressed members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday to contribute more troops and support to the fight again the Taliban in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates pressed members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday to contribute more troops and support to the fight again the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda at a high-level summit of NATO allies that started in Krakow, Poland, on Thursday.

Gates said he would like to see more troops, helicopters and transport planes to fill shortfalls in NATO's force in Afghanistan. He added, however, that he recognizes that many NATO allies face public pressure in their home countries and are unlikely to offer the support.

Gates suggested NATO countries could dispatch civilians to help the Afghan government instead.

"It may be easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases," Gates told reporters.

Germany has long resisted allowing its soldiers into heavy combat, so the idea of dispatching non-military personnel is appealing, said German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung.

"For training police and training the army, I think it's necessary to do more and we will do more," Jung said.

Canada's is committed to ending its combat role in Afghanistan in 2011 but that may not be the end of Canada' s role, said Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who is attending the two-day meeting.

"We're looking at ways in which we can continue to make a difference in Afghanistan," MacKay said. "We have a provincial reconstruction team, we have a diplomatic contribution, we have training."

MacKay said there are a number of countries that could contribute more in Afghanistan.

New strategic concept

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Thursday he wants the alliance to develop a "new strategic concept" to meet challenges its founders could never have imagined.

The new concept would replace one drafted in 1999 and would guide the alliance in confronting terrorism, cyber attacks and even the problems resulting from climate change, he said

It would also reflect NATO's plans to admit two more ex-communist states — Albania and Croatia.

De Hoop Scheffer said the alliance remains guided by a Europe-centric concept that "does not take into account many of the key political and security events of the early 21st century."

NATO did not foresee the problems posed by global terrorism, such as the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting mission in Afghanistan, he said.

Pakistan vital to Afghan mission success

De Hoop Scheffer said Pakistan was key to the success of the Afghan mission. He urged a more regional approach to the conflict to counter militants fighting the alliance in Afghanistan that are also trying to destabilize Pakistan.

"We should increase military-to-military engagement in Pakistan and deepen the political dialogue," de Hoop Scheffer told reporters.

"I can say again that I believe the Pakistani government is serious about fighting extremism. What we need in NATO is to stop seeing Afghanistan in isolation and to start seeing it in a more regional approach."

Gates signed a new military co-operation agreement with Poland Thursday, formalizing ties between the special forces operations of both countries. He praised Poland's willingness to send troops into harm's way, including about 1,600 in Afghanistan.

"As an old cold warrior it is a true honour to be able to sign this document on behalf of the United States," Gates told Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich.

Poland is one site for a planned U.S. missile shield system that Russia has aggressively protested, but neither Gates nor Klich mentioned it during a brief signing ceremony.

Gates said he sees a chance for better relations with Russia with a new president in the White House, but warned that Moscow is trying to "have it both ways" by offering help in Afghanistan and undermining U.S. efforts there at the same time.

Kyrgyzstan votes to close U.S. air base

The NATO meeting comes on the heels of a vote in Kyrgyzstan's parliament to close a key U.S. air base in the country.

In a 78-1 vote, parliament cancelled the lease agreement on the Manas air base, a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tonnes of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

If President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signs the bill and Kyrgyz authorities issue an eviction notice, the U.S. will have 180 days to vacate the base.

Gates played down Kyrgyzstan's moves to kick the United States off the strategic air base and said he was willing to negotiate higher rent to stay.

"We are prepared to look at the fees and see if there is justification for a somewhat larger payment," Gates said at a press conference. "But we're not going to be ridiculous about it."

The United States pays $17.4 million a year for use of the transit hub, under terms of a 2006 lease. About 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo move through the airbase monthly. The move to push the U.S. out could hamper President Barack Obama's efforts to increase the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Obama recently announced he would send an extra 17,000 soldiers to help fight Taliban insurgents and shore up the increasingly shaky Afghan government.

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

The ministerial meeting will set the stage for NATO's 60th anniversary summit in April in Strasbourg, France.

With files from the Associated Press