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Small U.S. allies pitch in but bigger ones cautious of Obama plea for more Afghanistan troops

BRUSSELS, Belgium - President Barack Obama won flattering words but little solid firepower from European allies for his new Afghanistan strategy Wednesday, as small countries pitched in small troop reinforcements but bigger armies held back.

BRUSSELS, Belgium - President Barack Obama won flattering words but little solid firepower from European allies for his new Afghanistan strategy Wednesday, as small countries pitched in small troop reinforcements but bigger armies held back.

The chief of NATO rallied behind Obama's plan to send 30,000 more forces to Afghanistan, pledging 5,000 more from other NATO members.

Poland was the biggest European ally to offer more forces after Obama's Tuesday speech, in an apparent bid for more attention from a U.S. administration sometimes seen as too removed from Europe's concerns.

"This is not just America's war," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said - yet in many capitals, including Paris and Berlin, the answer to Obama's plea was "Let's wait and see."

European countries are cool to sending more soldiers to a war that often looks unwinnable and supporting an Afghan government tainted by corruption and election fraud. Some leaders are looking to an international conference on Afghanistan in London next month before promising any more troops.

"The United States has lost a bit of its credibility as a leader. Many leaders, both European and non-European, feel that because of domestic political reasons, Obama is not willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary in order to win," said Florentino Portero, professor of the National Open University in Madrid. He said Obama's call for 30,000 troops was not enough to defeat the Taliban.

Much of the European reaction Wednesday focused on the need for a political solution and to bolster Afghanistan's own army and police. Some countries that committed no troops may later come up with police trainers or money for civilian projects instead.

"It is absolutely crucial for our strategy that the Afghans start to take control of security as soon as possible," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.

Britain announced before Obama's speech it is sending 500 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing its numbers there to 10,000.

Poland led the European offers Wednesday of combat troops. A Polish official said the government will likely send 600 combat-ready reinforcements, mainly for patrolling and training to beef up its existing 2,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan. The offer needs approval from Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Cabinet and from President Lech Kaczynski.

It's a hefty and costly contribution for a country of Poland's size.

"It's one of the biggest investments in Afghanistan, and in a mission most Poles oppose," said Marcin Zaborowski of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. "This is a major gesture of solidarity."

Zaborowski said Poland hopes Washington will consider its help in Afghanistan as a reminder to "respect your friends a little more, especially those friends who can deliver."

Albania also stepped up Wednesday, pledging 85 troops to add to its 235-strong presence. Macedonia's president promised to deploy an extra 80 soldiers in February, raising the strength of its contingent of 250.

The Czech Defence Ministry floated the possibility of sending 100 more troops to add to 535 approved for deployment next year. The offer would need parliament's go-ahead.

Spain's El Pais daily said the defence ministry was considering sending 200 more soldiers to its contingent of 1,000. Italy promised to do its part - "to save NATO's credibility," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said - but gave no troop pledges. Finland said it would consider next week whether to reinforce troops.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Obama's speech as "courageous" but gave no hint of sending more soldiers. Sarkozy said recently he would not expand the 4,000-strong French force in Afghanistan, and French presidential spokesman Luc Chatel said Sarkozy wanted more time to respond to a U.S. request for 1,500 more French troops.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle praised Obama for making clear that there must be an end to the mission. "There cannot be only a military solution, but what we need is a political solution that is supported by the military," Westerwelle said.

He and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, said their countries remained committed to building up and training the Afghan police force.

The NATO chief did not specify where the additional 5,000 alliance soldiers he pledged would come from, or how many would be from Europe. The U.S. now has 71,000 troops in Afghanistan, while other NATO members and allies collectively have 38,000 service members there. With the added reinforcements, the international forces will grow to more than 140,000 soldiers.

The Afghan army has about 94,000 troops, and is slated to expand to 134,000. The Afghan police number about 93,000 members.

The U.S. and Afghan forces face an estimated 25,000 Taliban insurgents.

At the height of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, its forces in that country totalled 118,000 troops.

On Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said it viewed Obama's strategy "positively" and urged international co-operation, by the U.N. or regional powers, to vanquish Afghanistan's terrorism and drug trafficking.

Gareth Price, head of the Asia program at London think-tank Chatham House, said Obama's speech wasn't aimed at U.S. allies in Europe but at American audiences, the Taliban and the Afghan government.

He said much could be determined by what Afghan President Hamid Karzai does ahead of the London conference in late January. "I would think those countries that haven't committed anything so far - i.e. most of them - would be waiting to see what happens on the ground."

The foreign ministers of 43 NATO nations and their allies in Afghanistan will meet late Thursday to discuss the new strategy for Afghanistan and other issues.

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Charlton reported from Paris. Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Vanessa Gera and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Melissa Eddy in Berlin, Jill Lawless in London, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Alessandra Rizzo in Rome, Jim Heintz in Moscow, Deborah Seward in Paris and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

 
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