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Rice says NATO facing test in Afghanistan and fight will be long and difficult
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    LONDON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the fight in Afghanistan won’t be won quickly and Defense Secretary Robert Gates scolded NATO countries who haven’t committed combat troops ‘‘willing to fight and die’’ to defeat a resurgent Taliban.
    ‘‘I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse,’’ the Pentagon chief said from Washington.
    Gates said he’s not optimistic that the influx of 3,000 more Marines into Afghanistan this spring will be enough to put the NATO-led war effort back on track. He said he has sent letters to every alliance defense minister asking them to contribute more troops and equipment, but hasn’t received any replies.
    As he has before, Gates insisted he would continue to be ‘‘a nag on this issue’’ when he meets NATO defense ministers Thursday and Friday in Europe to discuss Afghanistan, but also said that only the Canadians, British, Australians, Dutch and Danes ‘‘are really out there on the line and fighting.’’
    ‘‘I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect peoples’ security, and others who are not,’’ Gates said during a Senate hearing on U.S. defense spending plans.
    Gates didn’t name countries that aren’t stepping up, but Germany has flatly rejected sending soldiers to volatile southern Afghanistan. Instead, Berlin agreed to send about 200 troops to serve in a quick reaction force in northern Afghanistan, fulfilling a NATO request, the defense minister said Wednesday. The quick reaction force would be based along with Germany’s other roughly 3,300 troops in the north.
    Overall, there are about 43,000 troops in the NATO-led coalition now, including 16,000 U.S. troops. There are an additional 13,000 U.S. troops there training Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
    All 26 NATO nations have soldiers in Afghanistan and all agree the mission is their top priority. But the refusal of European allies to send more combat troops is forcing an already stretched U.S. military focused on the Iraq war to fill the gap, and straining the Western alliance.
    ‘‘I do think the alliance is facing a real test here,’’ Rice said, speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. ‘‘Our populations need to understand this is not a peacekeeping mission,’’ but rather a long-term fight against extremists, she added.
    The United States and Britain believe the Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants are turning to guerrilla and terror tactics to counter NATO forces but have not been able to sustain prolonged combat.
    ‘‘It frankly doesn’t take much courage to blow up a school,’’ Rice said.
    The Taliban launched more than 140 suicide missions last year, the most since the regime was ousted from power in late 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
    Rice and Miliband met as Britain confirmed that it will not increase the size of its force in Afghanistan. Some NATO nations had hoped Britain would essentially transfer fighting forces from Iraq, where its operations are scaling down.
    Britain has about 7,700 soldiers in Afghanistan and will replace infantry troops with more paratroopers during a routine changeover in April. Prime Minister Gordon Brown told lawmakers Wednesday he will continue to push European allies to provide more combat troops.
    ‘‘What we are looking for, particularly when it comes to the NATO summit a few weeks from now, is a determination on the part of all our allies to ensure the burden sharing in Afghanistan is fair,’’ he told legislators at the House of Commons.
    ‘‘We need a proper burden sharing — not only in terms of personnel, but also in terms of helicopters and other equipment,’’ he said.
    Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are also fighting the Taliban violence on the front lines in Afghanistan’s south. Canada has threatened to pull out unless other allies do more of the hard work.
    Canada’s minority Conservative government said Wednesday, however, that it will ask Parliament to extend the country’s combat mission in Afghanistan. A vote could take place in March — if NATO follows recent recommendations by an independent panel saying that Canada should continue its mission only if another NATO country musters 1,000 troops for Afghanistan’s south, a spokeswoman for the government said.
    Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under pressure to withdraw Canada’s 2,500 troops from Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold, after the deaths of 78 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat. The mission is set to expire in 2009. Canadian opposition parties have threatened to bring down Harper’s minority government if he does not end the combat mission.
    The Afghanistan mission is not as unpopular in Europe as the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but European publics, and many leaders, have misgivings about long-term combat in the fragile nation and doubts about the focus and commitment of the Bush administration in its final year in office. Some European nations also have troop commitments in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East and are under pressure to do more for peacekeeping in Darfur.
    Rice and Miliband both had the same response to a new U.N. report Wednesday showing a spike in Afghan opium production, which is fueling the Taliban insurgency: it is a problem for both the alliance and the Afghan government, and Afghans themselves must do more.
    ‘‘We are not in Afghanistan to create a colony, but to help an independent country and now a democratic country run its own affairs,’’ Miliband said.
    The report, by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said that Afghanistan, in turmoil since a U.S.-led military operation toppled the repressive Taliban regime in 2001, is also steadily increasing its production of marijuana.
    Afghanistan supplies some 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, the main ingredient in heroin, and the Taliban rebels fighting the U.S.-led forces receive up to $100 million from the drug trade, the U.N. estimates in the new report.
    Poppies are Afghanistan’s most successful export, albeit an illegal one. Rice tried to answer criticism that eradication efforts leave farmers destitute. The drug trade, concentrated in Taliban strongholds in the south, is increasingly a business arrangement run by cartels and hitched to terrorism, she said.
    ‘‘There are a lot of big fish,’’ involved, she said.
    Associated Press reporter Anne Flaherty contributed to this report from Washington.

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