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US Calls for More Troops in Afghanistan

The US has called on fellow NATO members to allow the alliance to attack the flourishing opium trade in Afghanistan in an effort to weaken the Taliban.

A French NATO soldier seen on patrol in Kabul

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for more troops and effort in Afghanistan

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the drugs trade brought windfalls of up to $80 million a year for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

"We need to have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try and interrupt this flow of cash," he told reporters at a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers which began Thursday in Budapest, Hungary.

General John Craddock, NATO operations commander, likewise appealed to the members of the 26-nation alliance for the authority to attack laboratories, trafficking networks and drug lords in Afghanistan to knock the wind out of the resurgent insurgency.

Several member states remain sceptical of such a plan, however, with nations such as Germany fearing any extension of NATO's role in Afghanistan may lead to more violence, and, as a result, a turn of the tide of public support among Afghans away from the Western alliance.

Gates also pushed his counterparts to increase their troop contributions in Afghanistan, despite European reluctance to do so.

NATO currently has a force of 50,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, up from about 45,000 six months ago. The German parliament agreed Tuesday, Oct. 7 to increase its contribution by 1,000 soldiers, raising its total to 4,500.

The US contingent in Afghanistan currently stands at 33,000, including 13,000 under NATO command.

Georgian membership

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

Saakashvili has called on NATO to fulfil its pledges

Gates also used the first day of the Budapest talks to further pitch Georgian membership of NATO, in spite of fierce opposition from Russia and scepticism within the alliance.

"I urge our allies to support (the membership action plan) for Georgia in December and to support Georgia's efforts to accomplish needed reform," Gates said alongside his Georgian counterpart, Davit Kezerashvili, after the meeting.

NATO leaders meeting in Bucharest in April promised Georgia it would be able to join the alliance at an unspecified future date. But they postponed any decision on a possible Membership Action Plan (MAP) until a foreign ministers' meeting planned for December.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel effectively blocked the MAP offer to Georgia and Ukraine in Bucharest, arguing that it was too early for them to join the alliance.

“Heads of government of the alliance declared unanimously in April in Bucharest that Georgia should be a member of the alliance," Gates said in Budapest. "The question is whether we can get this accomplished at the foreign ministers' meeting in December."

Kezerashvili said Thursday that NATO membership remained his country's "top security priority."

Somali piracy

French cruise ship Le Ponant, foreground, off Somalia's coast after it was seized by pirates

Somali pirates have seized some 32 vessels this year

Also to come from the meeting were pledges to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, where a plethora of attacks and vessel hijackings have caused millions of dollars in losses, led to the kidnapping of innocent seafarers and pushed up insurance costs for boats sailing near the lawless east African country.

"Allies agreed to have NATO ships address piracy off of the coast of Somalia soon, and escort World Food Program ships, in complementarity with other parties, for instance the EU," a NATO diplomat said during the talks.

As many as nine EU nations could take part in the maritime operation, including Belgium, Cyprus, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and possibly Britain.

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