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Afghanistan tops US Defence Secy's agenda

Robert Gates, who is set to make his first visit to NATO HQ, has identified Afghanistan as one of his chief priorities and biggest worries.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2007 15:54 IST

New United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates is set to make his first visit to NATO headquarters on Monday with Afghanistan topping an agenda that also includes the crisis in Darfur and fears of renewed tension in Kosovo.

Alliance officials will be keen to hear if US plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq will lead to reductions in the American contribution to the NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, which currently numbers around 32,000 troops.

The United States has about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, about half serving with the NATO force, while the rest run a separate counterterrorism operation.

In London, on the first leg of his European visit on Sunday, Gates stressed the importance of Afghanistan.

"My first priority is making sure that we preserve the gains that we achieved in Afghanistan, and then talking about the way forward in Iraq," he told reporters travelling with him.

He said he would be travelling to Afghanistan "in a few days."

A senior official on Gates' flight to London said the defence secretary wanted to consult with Afghan officials and US commanders there to see if they had adequate resources at a time when some fear that Afghanistan is in danger of reverting to a haven for terrorists.

The US official, who spoke under ground rules that prohibit reporters from identifying him, said US and allied military commanders in Afghanistan have detected signs that the Taliban, whose forces were resurgent in 2006, are preparing a renewed offensive soon.

They typically are less active in winter. "We have some information that they are planning a spring offensive and (we) want to make sure we are prepared to take that on," the official said.

The Taliban apparently believe they have an opportunity in coming months to build on the gains they made last year, particularly in southern Afghanistan.

The official also said Gates would travel soon to the Persian Gulf area, including southern Iraq, where British forces have been operating since the war began in 2003.

Gates has identified Afghanistan as one of his chief priorities and biggest worries. At his swearing-in ceremony December 18, he said the gains against the Taliban since 2001 are "at risk".

NATO has said it is willing to give wider logistical support to an expanded African peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

It is also preparing for the threat of renewed violence in Kosovo this year as the UN prepares to release a report on the province's future. NATO has 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo.