GOTHENBURG, Sweden (Reuters) -- European defense ministers have expressed reluctance to send more troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, anticipating the response to a possible U.S. call for reinforcements.
Rather than send reinforcements, several EU states want to focus resources and efforts on training the Afghan military and police, defense ministers meeting for informal talks on the west coast of Sweden said.
"If you look at Europe, I don't hear any voices saying we have an additional five or ten thousand soldiers to send to Afghanistan," Danish Defence Minister Soren Gade told reporters.
"Take my country, for example," he said. "We have right now 850 soldiers [in Afghanistan]. Compared to our size -- we are 5 million people -- it's a lot, so it will be very difficult for me to send more soldiers and I think a lot of European politicians will have an excuse not to do so."
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, submitted a request for more troops
this month, but the Pentagon plans to hold it while President Barack Obama decides what strategy to pursue.
Italy, one of the biggest European contributors with around 3,100 troops, would consider keeping in place the 500 soldiers it sent to boost security before the Afghan elections, but was also wary of committing any more manpower.
"We've been saying 'yes' for the last 10 years," Italian Vice Minister of Defense Guiseppe Cossiga said of his country's contribution to peacekeeping missions across the world.
"We are not willing today to say 'no' -- we will consider any request -- but our resources and our capacity are already strained very much."
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana tried to ward off any criticism that members of the bloc were not bearing enough of the burden of improving security in Afghanistan, noting there were more than 30,000 European troops there.
"It's the biggest operation mobilizing European forces ever," he told reporters. "So nobody can say the Europeans are not doing their job in Afghanistan." Afghanization
In a bleak assessment prepared for the White House, McChrystal wrote that his mission would likely fail if he were not given reinforcements for his force of more than 100,000 troops, including about 63,000 Americans.
More than 40 countries have sent troops to Afghanistan under the NATO banner with Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Poland providing the most European soldiers.
Europe has been seen as unlikely to send significantly more troops except as part of a clear plan for training Afghan security forces, and several defense ministers in Gothenburg expressed doubt about sending reinforcements.
"I can't deliver more than what we have now," Dutch Defense Minister Eimert Van Middelkopp told reporters. "We have a lot -- about 2,000 men in Afghanistan. I think it's far more important in the long run that we have more Afghan military, and Afghan police."
Officials have not said exactly how many extra troops McChrystal believes he needs, but defense and congressional officials have suggested it could be about 30,000.
They would be needed for a complete overhaul of tactics, with new emphasis on securing civilians in population centers to loosen the grip of the growing Taliban-led insurgency after some of the deadliest months of the war for Western troops.
Denmark's Gade urged the EU to improve coordination.
"It is one of the missions that we cannot afford to lose... it is very important that international society uses the right amount of money, the right number of soldiers, and of course uses a lot of efforts to train the Afghan National Army."