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Rice Heads to London for Talks on NATO's Afghan Role


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to London Tuesday for talks with top British officials on an escalating row within NATO over troop levels in Afghanistan. The Bush administration wants NATO countries to commit more troops to Afghanistan, especially in areas of heavy fighting with Taliban forces. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice's London talks Wednesday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband are being portrayed here as strategy sessions in advance of alliance-wide ministerial meetings on Afghanistan.

Both the United States and Britain are moving to increase their troop commitments in Afghanistan, especially in the volatile southern part of the country, where insurgent activity by the Taliban has been increasing.

The Bush administration has made clear it would like other NATO countries to boost their Afghan contingents as well.

Divisions over the issue flared into the open last week, when Germany - whose forces are in the relatively stable northern part of Afghanistan - bluntly spurned a call by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to send combat troops and aircraft to the south.

Canada meanwhile threatened to pull its troops out of Afghanistan next year unless other allies send reinforcements.

In a talk with reporters on the eve of Rice's departure for London, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack downplayed the notion of a serious rift among the allies. But he also said the Bush administration does not intend to relent in its push for bigger Afghan contributions:

"You're going to have tactical differences, even within an alliance and we respect those," said Sean McCormack. "At the same time, when there are things that need to be done in order for the mission to succeed, we're going to speak out pretty clearly about that. And as part of that effort, we'll speak in a pretty straight-forward way about the need for NATO, as an alliance, to add more troops and add more combat power in Afghanistan."

The Afghan issue is likely to dominate the NATO defense ministers' meeting later this week in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and a foreign ministers gathering a month from now in Brussels - both preludes to a NATO summit in April in Bucharest.

Rice and the British officials are also expected to discuss the search for a new candidate for a proposed international "super-envoy" for Afghanistan, after British diplomat Paddy Ashdown was rejected by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. officials say there is an urgent need to better coordinate reconstruction and anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, and have made no secret of their disappointment that Ashdown, a former international administrator for Bosnia-Herzegovina, was vetoed for the Afghan post.

A report last week by the relief group Oxfam spoke of a potential humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan in the absence of a more coherent international aid effort and strides against the insurgency.

A separate report by a panel led by the former U.S. NATO commander General James Jones warned that Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a "failed state" because of too few military forces and insufficient economic aid.