Gates: NATO's 'powerful role' in Afghanistan

January 17, 2008 8:25:00 AM PST
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that sending Marines to Afghanistan will keep pressure on the Taliban and doesn't "reflect dissatisfaction" with NATO countries' performance.He was trying to smooth over comments a day earlier that sparked an international furor. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Gates said U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan are doing a terrific job but that he is concerned that NATO allies are not well trained in counterinsurgency operations.

"Allied forces ... have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan," Gates told a Pentagon press conference, which officials said had purposely been rescheduled for earlier in the day Thursday to meet European news deadlines.

But he also repeated his concern that "the alliance as a whole has not trained for counterinsurgency operations," and he urged more training.

Gates said he had personally phoned his Canadian counterpart to explain his position.

Gates noted the Dutch parliament had just voted to extend its troop commitment to Afghanistan for another two years.

"I think people are accepting their responsibilities, especially those that are already there," Gates said.

Gates' comments in Wednesday's newspaper had spurred the Dutch Defense Ministry to summon the U.S. ambassador for an explanation, and they prompted NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to retort, "All the countries that are in the south do an excellent job. Full stop."

One British lawmaker, Patrick Mercer, condemned Gates' comments as "bloody outrageous" and added, "I would beg the Americans to understand that we are their closest allies, and our men are bleeding and dying in large numbers."

As Pentagon officials scrambled publicly to calm the storm, other officials and experts quietly acknowledged that NATO nations don't have the capabilities needed to fight an insurgency, particularly an insurgency many believe has grown because the U.S. did not wipe it out after the 2001 invasion. NATO forces initially deployed to Afghanistan with the understanding that they would be doing peacekeeping work.

On Iraq, Gates said that "all available evidence" shows U.S. plans to withdraw five combat brigades through next summer remain on track - which would bring the overall troop level to about 130,000 or so. And he made clear to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, that conditions on the ground will determine whether further troop withdrawals can be made through the end of 2008.

"We will wait to see General Petraeus' evaluation in March as far as what we might be able to do in July," Gates said, adding that he remains hopeful that "the pace of the drawdowns in the first half of the year will continue in the second half of the year."

Previously, Gates has expressed hopes that the U.S. military presence in Iraq can drop to around 100,000 troops before President Bush leaves office.