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Pentagon chief opens talks with NATO allies on boosting Afghan mission

    EDINBURGH, Scotland — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday began two days of talks with allied defense and diplomatic officials on how to re-energize and reinforce NATO efforts in southern Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban insurgency has managed to increase its attacks in recent months.
    It is the latest in a series of efforts by Gates to inject a sense of urgency in NATO for improving the effort not only in the south, where the Taliban’s influence is traditionally strongest, but also in the broader challenge of strengthening the central government in Kabul and building the economy.
    Gates arrived in Edinburgh after an overnight flight from Washington, one day after telling Congress that he is frustrated at the inability of some European allies in NATO to contribute more troops and other assistance.
    An official traveling with Gates said the defense secretary also would discuss in Edinburgh the formulation of a ‘‘master document,’’ or strategic plan, intended to explain plainly why NATO is in Afghanistan, what it believes must be accomplished over the next several years and how goals can be met.
    The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Gates has a draft plan but did not expect to develop it fully with the other allies during these talks. The aim is to have the plan ready for consideration by NATO heads of government at a summit in early April.
    The plan, which Gates described in his congressional testimony Tuesday as a ‘‘strategic concept paper,’’ would not be meant to reorganize or restructure the NATO mission in Afghanistan but rather to more clearly explain it so that allied governments can build stronger public support for the overall mission.
    Gates was beginning in Edinburgh with separate one-on-one meetings with Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay and Australia’s new defense minister, Joel Fitzgibbon. Then he was having a formal dinner hosted by British Defense Minister Des Browne and attended by their counterparts from the other NATO allies with troops in southern Afghanistan: the Netherlands, Canada, Australian, Romania, Denmark and Estonia.
    Also attending were political directors from those eight countries’ foreign ministries. Representing the State Department was Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs and a former NATO ambassador.
    From the moment he became Pentagon chief in December last year, Gates has sounded an alarm about the risk of giving up the gains achieved in Afghanistan since U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.
    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.
    Gates visited Afghanistan last week.
    ‘‘One of the clear concerns that we all have is that the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence,’’ he said on that trip, noting that it is focused mainly in the south.
    There are now about 11,000 NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, under British command.
    Some question whether more troops are needed.
    In a new assessment published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, analyst Julianne Smith cautioned that the situation in Afghanistan is growing increasingly unstable.
    ‘‘Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction, and short of a complete overhaul of NATO strategy, it threatens to take its people, the future of the alliance and trans-Atlantic relations along with it.’’

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