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Europe Could Boost NATO Afghanistan Troop Levels

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- European members could contribute more to NATO's mission in Afghanistan if Washington poured in more resources itself and provided a compelling strategy, the U.S. ambassador to NATO has said.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since U.S.-led forces toppled hard-line Taliban Islamist rulers after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States for harboring Al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups are particularly strong in the south and east of Afghanistan and enjoy safe havens across the border in Pakistan, officials say.

The United States has long called for its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to offer more troops for Afghanistan and to place fewer restrictions, known as "caveats" in alliance jargon, on their operations.

The United States has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. Approximately 13,000 of them are in the NATO-led force of more than 50,000 troops.

Kurt Volker, the U.S. NATO ambassador, told reporters he believed other members of the Western security alliance would contribute more to the NATO effort if reassured on the U.S. strategy and commitment.

The Bush administration is engaged in a review of its Afghanistan policy, adding to uncertainty among its allies.

"You right now have allies who are concerned about some developments in Afghanistan and they are not sure what the U.S. is doing -- people have talked about some review going on on Afghanistan policy," Volker said. "Well the Europeans want to know what that's about. Where does the U.S. come out on this?

"If you have a clear U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and backing that up with U.S. resources and a strategy that makes sense to people...then, yes, we could also get more input from our European allies as well," Volker said.

Experts say it will take more than just troop increases to stabilize Afghanistan. Better governance, economic development, and new efforts to tackle corruption and the opium trade are all widely seen as necessary.

Volker declined to predict whether NATO foreign ministers would offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan, or a formal pathway to joining the alliance, when they meet in December.

Russia invaded Georgia in August after Tbilisi tried to retake the breakaway pro-Russian South Ossetia region. Moscow has since withdrawn soldiers from Georgia proper, but it has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

The August war has led some allies to say NATO should delay putting Georgia and Ukraine on a formal membership track.