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Gates prods allies on Afghan role

With the Taliban gaining ground and death tolls rising, he called on Europeans to boost forces.

EDINBURGH, Scotland - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday pushed European allies for more troops to reenergize efforts in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban has increased its attacks in the 18 months since NATO took command of the war.

Even as it struggles to find a way out of Iraq, the Bush administration is saddled with troubling signs in Afghanistan, where the government is weak, the insurgency is relentless, and casualties are mounting.

Opening two days of talks with allied defense and diplomatic officials, Gates hoped to stir discussion of forming a new strategy for Afghanistan that could be adopted by NATO government leaders at a summit in April.

It was not clear that all NATO members agree such a plan is even needed, and no firm decisions on a way forward were expected in Edinburgh.

Gates has repeatedly cautioned since beginning his tenure at the Pentagon a year ago that the gains achieved in Afghanistan over the last six years were at risk of being lost unless the United States and its NATO allies carry out comprehensive military, economic and diplomatic solutions.

He and other U.S. officials have expressed concern that Europe has lost sight of the purpose of fighting in Afghanistan, whose former Taliban rulers gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, in the years before they carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gates wants NATO to adopt a short statement - the first of its kind, according to his aides - that would spell out briefly and plainly why the war is important, what U.S. and allied troops are doing there, and how they can help the Afghan government.

The document would look three to five years into the future to set an overarching goal, plus set benchmarks to measure progress, according to a senior defense official who discussed the concept on condition he not be named.

Critics of the Bush administration's efforts in Afghanistan charge that the war in Iraq has been a distraction, drawing away resources and energy that could have been used to stabilize Afghanistan.

The allies who want to help in Afghanistan also feel constrained - for reasons that do not always meet with U.S. approval. For example, to limit the risk of casualties, some allied governments put heavy restrictions on the way their troops can be used. U.S. officials complain that this limits their usefulness.

The United States has 26,000 troops in Afghanistan; together, NATO members other than the United States have a similar number. Britain is the largest non-U.S. contributor, with 7,800 troops.

This year has been the deadliest in Afghanistan since the invasion. More than 6,200 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence, according to an Associated Press tally of figures from Western and Afghan officials. Among coalition forces, 112 U.S. troops and 116 non-Afghan troops have died this year, both highs since the war began.

Gates wants the Europeans to commit more troops - about 3,500 trainers for the Afghan police, plus mentors for the Afghan army, 16 helicopters, and at least three battalions of ground forces.