WASHINGTON — The nominee to head U.S. and NATO forces in Europe spent Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing fielding questions about Afghanistan, and vowed his top priority would be finding ways to increase cooperation among allies in the fight there.

“How the alliance handles [Afghanistan] will bleed over into the future of the alliance,” Adm. James Stavridis told lawmakers. “We need to think about asking our allies to do what they are willing to do, and recognize there are places they’re just not willing to go.”

As NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Stavridis would be the top contact to negotiate military assistance from alliance countries. Senators criticized those partners again on Tuesday for providing fewer combat troops than promised and for putting combat caveats on those forces which limit their usefulness.

Stavridis, who currently serves as the head of the U.S. Southern Command, said his top priority if confirmed by the Senate will be to quickly address the shortfall in operational mentoring and liaison teams in Afghanistan.

The OMLTs — embedded units within Afghan National Army battalions — are staffed with personnel from a variety of coalition nations and are designed to provide combat and leadership training to the new national fighters.

But Stavridis said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said they’re already eight short of the June goal of 64 OMLTs for the country, and expect they’ll fall 20 short of their goal of 90 teams at the end of 2009.

“This is the kind of thing [our allies] can perform very well in,” he said. “These small teams have tremendous affect. ... In the end, security is local. You have to train up these Afghans.”

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