Germany on Friday rejected an urgent US call for troops in the battle-ravaged south of Afghanistan, insisting Berlin's focus on reconstruction efforts in the relatively calm north was justified.
Amid reports of transatlantic tensions over the NATO mission in Afghanistan, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the mandate in place until October ruled out stationing soldiers in the turbulent south.
"I think we will continue to do our part as foreseen by the parliamentary mandate," Jung told reporters. "That will have to continue to be our focus."
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly sent an "unusually stern" letter to Jung last month demanding combat troops, helicopters and paratroopers for Afghanistan and charging that some NATO states were not pulling their weight.
Jung responded with a similarly "direct and stern" letter, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on Friday.
The minister confirmed that Germany, as well as several other NATO member states, had received a letter from Gates, but declined to comment further on its content.
Government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said Berlin found Gates's letter "surprising."
"During all the meetings and talks we have had with the US side in recent months, the engagement of the German military in the framework of the mandate with its focus on northern Afghanistan was expressly praised," he said.
"It was recognized that the German military is doing important, useful work there and we have always made clear that the mandate in its current form as foreseen by the parliament is the basis of our engagement in Afghanistan and that the content of this mandate is not subject to debate," he said.
He said that Jung would be discussing the issue with his NATO counterparts at a meeting in Vilnius this week.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer held talks on Friday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris.
"[I] cannot say that [Sarkozy] gave me assurances, but ... the indications I have are that it is quite possible France will take on a greater responsibility in Afghanistan, although that is a decision for the French government," he said.
France has about 1,600 soldiers engaged in Afghanistan, just over half the German contingent of 3,100 -- nearly all of them deployed in Kabul and the north as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
It is the third biggest troop provider after the US and Britain.
The NATO chief said earlier that a surge in troops in Afghanistan was "very important."
"There's no doubt we must do more, but I don't think that it would be useful to speak about it in public because it would hurt our success in reconstructing and developing Afghanistan," he said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that German troops were already making headway in stabilizing the north of Afghanistan.
"I think that is also recognized by the United States," he said after talks in Berlin with his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt.
Gates' letter came after NATO formally asked Germany last month to deploy a rapid reaction force of 250 troops in northern Afghanistan to replace a Norwegian contingent.
Berlin is expected to approve the request but public support for the six-year-old mission is slipping with a majority of Germans saying that they oppose continued deployment to the country.
There are about 40,000 NATO and 20,000 US-led coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.
NATO commanders say they need about 7,500 more troops to carry out their mission.
Southern Afghanistan has seen the worst violence since the Taliban was ousted in the US-led invasion in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks by al-Qaeda.
The US State Department expressed concern on Thursday that the international community could abandon the war in Afghanistan, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper again warned, during talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, that Ottawa would withdraw its 2,500 soldiers from Afghanistan if it did not get reinforcements from other countries.
Scheffer said that the national commitments to UN, NATO and EU military operations could be streamlined.
"It's the same defense budgets, the same soldiers, the same planes," he said, adding that 21 countries are now members of both NATO and the EU.
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