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War weary Europeans test their leaders' resolve

In several countries contributing troops to the Afghanistan war effort, holding onto public support is half the battle.

“Plainly put, the soldiers are too fat, exercise too little and take little care of their diet,” Reinhold Robbe, parliamentary commissioner for armed forces, concluded.

In Italy, feelings flared in September when a Kabul bombing killed six Italians. Crowds demanded that Silvio Berlusconi bring home their 2,800 troops.

Then in October, Coghlan dropped a bombshell in the Times.

In 2008, he wrote, Italian intelligence officers secretly paid the Taliban and local warlords to keep peace in Italy’s sector east of Kabul. No one told French forces who took over and underestimated the threat.

Seeing protection money abruptly cut off, insurgents ambushed a column. They killed 10 Frenchmen, tough Foreign Legion paratroopers, mutilating bodies and seizing weapons.

Though denied in Rome, it was based on solid, if necessarily unnamed, sources.

A senior NATO commander said that while there might have been some reason to pay off insurgents, it was “madness” not to tell a coalition partner.

A “high-ranking Western intelligence source” made the larger point, underscoring the problems of lining up reluctant allies against an ill-defined enemy.

“NATO in Afghanistan is a fragile enough construct without this lot working behind our backs. The Italians have a hell of a lot to answer for.”

France took the news hard. By then, two-thirds of the country already wanted out. But President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, hurrying to Kabul, declared: “My determination is intact.”

That remains the official line, and little is likely to change over the hunkered down Afghan winter. Still, Sarkozy has less reason to stand firm as public will wanes.

In 2007, freshly elected, Sarkozy was eager to show strength to Washington, lining up as a solid ally after Jacques Chirac’s iffy relations with George W. Bush.

With Barack Obama, Sarkozy is shifting back toward France’s usual Gaullist role: an independent-minded, nuclear-tipped force capable of taking its own direction.

In London, Gen. David Richard, chief of the General Staff, summed up the allies’ challenge across the continent in remarks to the Daily Telegraph.

Holding public support is a struggle, he said. “We need to do better.”