Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Hutton backs US Nato troops call

John Hutton
Mr Hutton said Britain was already playing 'above our weight'

John Hutton has told the BBC Europe "needs to do more" to provide troops in the toughest areas of Afghanistan.

Echoing US calls, the defence secretary said it was not fair the US was doing "all the heavy lifting".

Britain was already punching "above our weight" and had not been asked for more troops so it was for "others" to contribute more first, he said.

Speaking ahead of a Nato meeting in Poland, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged allies to increase troops.

US President Barack Obama said he would deploy an additional 17,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan - bringing total US troops in the country to more than 50,000.

Burden sharing

Mr Hutton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The ball is absolutely in Europe's court now and we need to pick it up if we are going to be seen to be responsible, effective allies of the US who are doing all the heavy lifting in Afghanistan."

He said the extra US troops would help improve security - which was crucial if progress was to be made on the political front and with reconstruction.

We are playing, certainly, above our weight in the campaign there, so my initial view is it is for others to make further contributions
John Hutton
Defence secretary

And he said it would "highlight" the controversy over Europe's contribution to the military effort in Afghanistan.

"Our view has always been very clear - that Nato needs to do more, the European members of Nato need to do more.

"There needs to be a a fairer burden sharing of responsibility, particularly in those really hard areas where what we need are combat forces."

He said there were 30,000 European troops in Afghanistan and Nato had begun to develop a clear response to the threat posed by "international jihadist extremists" - but needed to look at "what more we can do."

Asked if a troop shortage had hampered progress, he said: "I think that's probably right."

'Security needs'

Britain is the second biggest contributor to the Nato-led mission, with more than 8,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan.

But few others appear willing to offer substantially more boots on the ground, despite the goodwill towards the new US leadership, says the BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt in Krakow, where NATO ministers are meeting.

President Obama has said the extra 17,000 US troops were due to go to Iraq but were being redirected to meet "urgent security needs".

The US currently has about 14,000 troops serving with a Nato-led mission. There are also 19,000 US troops under sole US command charged with fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda insurgents.

Earlier, speaking on board a US military plane to the two-day Nato meeting in Krakow, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said: "The administration is prepared... to make additional commitments to Afghanistan, but there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well".

He said Washington wanted its allies to supply troops ahead of Afghanistan's presidential elections in August, but said the response so far had been "disappointing".

Mr Hutton said he hoped the US decision to send more troops would "focus minds here in Krakow".

He said Britain had not made a decision about whether it would deploy extra troops.

"The Americans haven't asked us to do any more - we are looking at whether we can do more."

But he added: "We are playing, certainly, above our weight in the campaign there, so my initial view is it is for others to make further contributions ahead of any extra contributions from the UK."

He said he was not expecting any decisions on extra troops on Thursday as the Krakow meeting was just a preparatory meeting ahead of a Nato summit in April.

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