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U.S. Sees NATO Filling Gap For Afghan Trainers

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (file photo)
ROME (Reuters) -- The United States said today it was confident NATO allies would be able to fill the shortfall of trainers and mentors needed in Afghanistan by reshuffling rather than expanding their existing troop commitments.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's appeal for thousands of additional trainers and mentors has taken on new urgency since December, when President Barack Obama announced he was deploying 30,000 more U.S. troops with the goal of beginning to pull them out in July 2011, provided the Afghans can fill the security void.

Allies have promised to back Washington up by sending almost 10,000 additional troops of their own.

"The key, it seems to me, is not necessarily more troops in addition to the 10,000, but rather to ensure that among those 10,000 are as many trainers and mentors as we possibly can get," Gates told reporters in Rome at a press conference with Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa.

NATO leaders say new training teams are urgently needed if Afghanistan's security forces are to grow to a target of 300,000 personnel in 2011.

Washington's decision to push NATO member states to increase the proportion of trainers underscored the difficulty it faced convincing European and other states to make new troop commitments.

France was the only country to make a firm new pledge on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Istanbul on February 4-5. But its offer of just 80 French instructors was far fewer than the hundreds that Washington had hoped for.

Gates will visit Paris later this week, and U.S. officials have declined to say publicly whether France's response to the appeal for more trainers would be a point of contention.

Gates today singled out Italy for praise for committing another 1,000 troops, the most of any ally since Obama's December announcement.

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.