by Paul Ames
BRUSSELS, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- At a meeting with his NATO counterparts in the Polish city of Krakow this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged his country's allies to send more troops to Afghanistan.
But the response to his call was muted.
Instead of rushing forward with troops of their own, most European allies welcomed U.S. President Barrack Obama's recent decision to deploy an extra 17,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, expanding U.S. presence there to around 55,000.
European troops are now limited to operations in the relatively peaceful north and west of Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, nearing the end of his mandate, was unusually candid in his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.
"We are frankly not where we had hoped to be by now," he told the ministers on Thursday. "The south and east of Afghanistan are riven by insurgency, while drugs and the lack of effective government contribute to the frustration felt by Afghans at the lack of progress."
De Hoop Scheffer told the European allies that they had to do more to support the stepped up U.S. effort.
"Let me make clear that more forces is not only, of course, leaning back and waiting for our American friends to bring in more forces, but it is very much for the other allies to live up to their commitments and to live up to expectations," he told a news conference.
However, Gates' call for allies to do more did not go entirely unheeded.
Germany confirmed this week that it would send an extra 600 troops, while Italy said it would add an additional 500. Hungary offered a 40-strong rifle platoon to reinforce its 360 troops and Estonia pledged to send instructors to help train Afghan soldiers.
Although European nations cannot match the numbers announced by Obama this week as he seeks to shift the focus of U.S. military muscle from Iraq to Afghanistan, NATO officials said they were confident that European allies would come up with more troops to provide at least temporary security from May until the Afghan presidential elections in August.
Diplomats say they expect more European nations to step forward ahead of NATO's 60th anniversary summit scheduled for early April in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden on the Franco-German border.
According to Gates, up to 20 nations have indicated they will announce some sort of additional military or civilian contribution in the run-up to the summit.
The Krakow meeting is widely viewed as the prelude to Obama's first visit to Europe as president. European governments are seeking to mend fences with the new U.S. administration and build better trans-Atlantic relations following years of tensions with the Bush administration.
Even the countries not intending to send more troops because of public opposition, budget restraints or military overstretch are expected to make a greater contribution to training Afghan forces or helping with the country's development efforts.
"I expect there will be significant new commitments on either the civilian or the military side in connection with the NATO summit," Gates told reporters in Krakow on Friday.
He said Obama would probably make specific requests to allies for additional commitments as the United States draws up a review of its Afghan strategy ahead of the April summit.
U.S. and other NATO officials have repeatedly stressed the need for a regional approach to the Afghan conflict, bringing in Pakistan and other neighboring nations.
The regional complexities were underscored when Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a law Friday to close the Manasair base used by the U.S. military to supply troops in Afghanistan.
But Gates said he remained hopeful that a solution could be negotiated with the Kyrgyz authorities to keep the Manas base open.
"I continue to believe that this is not a closed issue and that there remains the potential at least to reopen this issue with the Kyrgyz and perhaps reach a new agreement," he added.
Gates also confirmed that the United States was looking at other alternatives. But he declined to comment on whether the options would involve moving to a base in Uzbekistan.
With Western supply routes ruled out due to tensions between the United States and Iran, and traffic through Pakistan increasingly targeted by Taliban militants, channels through the former Soviet states to the north of Afghanistan are vital for the NATO mission.
Closure of the Manas air base could make NATO more reliant on Russia, which signed an overland transit deal last April allowing the allies to ship non-lethal supplies from Europe to Afghanistan.
NATO is still seeking to conclude similar arrangements with the Central Asian states.