ANKARA/MUNICH - NATO allies plan to reshuffle rather than expand existing troop commitments to Afghanistan, sending more military trainers in place of combat forces to ready the Afghan army and police to take control, senior U.S. and NATO officials said on Saturday.
The decision of some NATO member states to increase the proportion of trainers within existing troop pledges underscores the difficulty NATO and Washington have faced convincing European and other states to make new troop commitments.
A senior U.S. official said before a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Istanbul this week that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates would urge allies to provide more than 4,000 trainers and mentors.
Yet NATO officials said France was the only country to make a firm new pledge at the two-day NATO meeting that ended on Friday -- offering just 80 instructors.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen nevertheless said he was confident the gap between what was needed and what was available would be filled, and that a force generation conference on February 23 would concentrate on this.
I have already got positive responses from allies and partners to our requests for more trainers and training teams ... more will come from other countries, he told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines a security conference in Munich.
Rasmussen also said it made sense to use existing resources to train the Afghan army and police, so that we can already this year start the process of handing over responsibility for the security to the Afghans.
It makes sense to use our resources to equip our training mission, he said. I find it quite natural that we make sure that the composition of our troop contributions to the mission in Afghanistan reflects the strategy. he said.
Gates made similar comments when asked by reporters in Ankara if he was concerned about the small commitment from France. He said what was important was the way contributions were shaped.
He said that there was general agreement in Istanbul that the more trainers there were in the forces U.S. allies had committed to send to Afghanistan, the better.
If there was one pretty clear theme at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Istanbul, it was: within the framework of the commitments you've made, trainers are the most important people we need ... It is important the right people go.
He said Germany had told its counterparts at the Istanbul meeting that it would significantly increase the proportion of trainers in its existing force in Afghanistan and reinforcements it plans to send.
But Gates warned his NATO counterparts their shared objectives would be achieved only if the coalition continues to muster the resolve.
No one wants to start issuing rosy predictions at this point, and a very tough fight lies in front of us. We are a long way from being done there, he told reporters in Ankara.
After Turkey, Gates was to take his call for more trainers to Rome, and then to Paris next week.
Nearly 120,000 foreign troops are now in Afghanistan, a number that will grow sharply in the coming months as new U.S. and NATO contingents arrive.
President Barack Obama has announced the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. troops and allies have committed almost 10,000 more with the aim of containing a widening Taliban insurgency and creating conditions for Afghan forces to take over.
The allies hope the big build of Afghan forces will allow them to start withdrawing some of the extra troops in July 2011.
Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, said it was important that U.S. allies did more.
This is absolutely critical to the transition of security to the Afghans. We absolutely need these people (allies) to step up to the plate and provide mentors and money. It's a math problem. That being said, I'm not remotely optimistic, she said.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Ibon Villelabeitia, Selcuk Gokoluk and Ayla Jean Yackley)