Nato’s top civilian is worried that public efforts to generate more military forces for Afghanistan are deepening divisions within the alliance, his spokesman said on Friday.

The expression of concern from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary-general, follows a sharp reaction in Germany to a request from Robert Gates, US defence secretary, to expand the German military contingent in Afghanistan by 3,200 troops.

The request came in a letter from Mr Gates to his German counterpart, Franz Josef Jung, details of which were published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

“The secretary-general is concerned about the public character of the force generation debate, which he feels is obscuring the progress on the ground in Afghanistan and creates a false impression to the public about alliance solidarity,” said James Appathurai, Nato spokesman.

“There is a process for force generation that includes bilateral discussions as well as Nato taking a role. Doing this in public has not proved to be effective and has often proven to be divisive.”

Diplomats said Mr Gates sent different versions of the letter to all Nato defence ministers seeking troops for the dangerous south of Afghanistan ahead of a meeting of defence ministers in Vilnius late next week. Afghanistan will be high on the agenda.

Nato military commanders are seeking 7,000 combat troops for the south to bolster the 42,000-strong alliance contingent in the country.

After expressing frustration at the lack of response from other Nato governments to his public calls for more troops, Mr Gates last month agreed that 3,200 US marines would be sent on a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan – 2,200 of whom would go to the south.

European defence officials said Mr Gates was also seeking forces to fill in for the US marines after their tour was complete. Canada has said it will remove its 2,500 contingent in the south unless other Nato nations bolster their presence there.

On Friday, a spokesman for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said the government was “surprised” by Mr Gates’s request but had “no plans” to extend the parliamentary mandate allowing up to 3,500 troops to be deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the relatively peaceful north.

He said the terms of Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan were “non-negotiable”. A defence spokesman for the Social Democrats, Ms Merkel’s coalition allies, said the US letter was “not helpful”.

German officials said the letter’s direct tone came as a surprise in Berlin because Washington had stated repeatedly it was aware of the political sensitivities surrounding Germany’s role in Afghanistan.

Germany is expected to announce this month that, at Nato’s request, it will soon deploy a “quick reaction force” of about 250 troops in northern Afghanistan.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung said Mr Gates’s letter asked Germany to drop the restrictions that limit the operations in which they can be used, and requested helicopter units, infantry and paratroopers to be deployed in the south against the Taliban.

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