Rice says NATO facing test

February 6, 2008 10:17:36 AM PST
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the military challenge in Afghanistan is sorely testing the NATO alliance and allied governments should be straightforward in telling their citizens that the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants will be long and difficult. "I do think the alliance is facing a real test here," Rice said after holding talks with British officials about the NATO-led effort in Afghanistan. "Our populations need to understand this is not a peacekeeping mission," but rather a long-term fight against extremists, she added.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he's not optimistic that the influx of 3,000 more Marines into Afghanistan this spring will be enough to put the war effort back on track. He said he has sent letters to every defense minister in the alliance asking them to contribute more troops and equipment, but has not yet received any replies.

"I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect peoples' security, and others who are not," Gates said during a Senate hearing on Pentagon spending plans. "And I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance, if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse."

Gates said he would continue to be "a nag on this issue" when he meets NATO defense ministers later this week in Europe to discuss Afghanistan.

"There are allies that are doing their part and are doing well," he said. "The Canadians, the British, the Australians, the Dutch, the Danes are really out there on the line and fighting, but there are a number of others that are not." He did not name specific countries.

Rice was speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. They both had the same response to a new U.N. report Wednesday showing a spike in Afghan opium production, which is fueling the Taliban insurgency: it is a problem for both the alliance and the Afghan government.

The report, by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said that Afghanistan, in turmoil since a U.S.-led military operation toppled the repressive Taliban regime in 2001, is also steadily increasing its production of marijuana.

Afghanistan supplies some 90 percent of the world's illicit opium, the main ingredient in heroin, and the Taliban rebels fighting the U.S.-led forces receive up to $100 million from the drug trade, the U.N. estimates in the new report.

Rice earlier said that she hoped a new candidate would be chosen quickly to replace a respected British diplomat who had accepted a job as overall international coordinator of aid, government and economic projects in Afghanistan but backed out because of objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The choice for the job would probably be a European, not an American, Rice said as she traveled here for the meetings on Afghanistan strategy and other matters. The United States is trying to bridge a rift among NATO allies participating in unequal measure in Afghanistan.

"It's bumpy and it's a lot of maturing that the alliance is having to do to do this," Rice told reporters en route to London. Some major European allies failed to send significant number of troops to the southern front lines, leaving troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands to bear the brunt of a resurgence of Taliban violence in the region. Canada has threatened to pull out unless other allies do more of the hard work.

"It's true and we've made no secret about it that there are certain allies that are in more dangerous parts of the country and we believe very strongly that there ought to be a sharing of that burden throughout the alliance," Rice said earlier. "That said, I think we ought not to also dismiss the contributions that are being made by all alliance members."

Troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have borne the brunt of a resurgence of Taliban violence in the region, and Canada has threatened to pull out unless other allies do more of the hard work.

The U.S. contributes a third of NATO's 42,000-strong International Security Assistance Force mission, making it the largest participant, on top of the 12,000 to 13,000 American troops operating independently. The U.S. plans to send an extra 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan this spring, including 2,200 combat troops to help the NATO-led force in the south.

Britain has about 7,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, up from 3,600 in 2006. Prime Minister Gordon Brown told lawmakers Wednesday he will continue to push European allies to provide more combat troops.

"What we are looking for, particularly when it comes to the NATO summit a few weeks from now, is a determination on the part of all our allies to ensure the burden sharing in Afghanistan is fair," he told legislators at the House of Commons.

Brown said Britain, Spain and France had pledged to send more troops.

"But we need a proper burden sharing - not only in terms of personnel, but also in terms of helicopters and other equipment," he said.

An independent study co-chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned that the United States risks losing "the forgotten war." It pointed to deteriorating international support and the growing Taliban insurgency. Rice also has appointed Jones as U.S. overseer for security matters between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Taliban launched more than 140 suicide missions last year, the most since the regime was ousted from power in late 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

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