Pentagon Critical Of NATO Allies

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sharply criticized NATO countries yesterday for not supplying urgently needed trainers, helicopters and infantry for Afghanistan as violence escalates there, vowing not to let the alliance "off the hook."

Gates called for overhauling the alliance's Afghan strategy over the next three to five years, shifting NATO's focus from primarily one of rebuilding to one of waging "a classic counterinsurgency" against a resurgent Taliban and growing influx of al-Qaeda fighters.

"I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee. Ticking off a list of vital requirements -- about 3,500 more military trainers, 20 helicopters and three infantry battalions -- Gates voiced "frustration" at "our allies not being able to step up to the plate."

The defense secretary's public scolding of NATO, together with equally forceful testimony yesterday by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put on display the growing transatlantic rift over the future of the mission in Afghanistan. The Bush administration over the last year has increasingly bristled at what it sees as NATO's overly passive response to the Taliban, but European leaders have repeatedly rebuffed entreaties by Gates and President Bush to do more.

In recent months, officials said, Bush and his advisers have grown more concerned about the situation in Afghanistan; in contrast to Iraq, violence is on the rise there and the U.S.-led coalition is struggling to adjust to changing conditions on the ground. As the White House reviews its Afghanistan policy, officials have concluded that wide-ranging strategic goals set for 2007 have not been met, despite tactical combat successes.

The United States provides about 26,000 troops in Afghanistan and has the lead combat role in the eastern part of the country, and U.S. Special Operations forces operate throughout the country. NATO provides most of the remaining 28,000 foreign troops, and British, Canadian, Australian and Dutch forces play key combat roles in southern Afghanistan, where violence has surged over the past year.

Bush extended the deployment of one brigade and sent another additional brigade to Afghanistan earlier this year to get a handle on the situation. But senior U.S. military officials have privately voiced concern that Afghanistan is regressing under a NATO command they describe as dysfunctional. If the United States wants success there, they have said, it may have to increase its military commitment again.

"How long do we continue to watch this thing?" asked one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There is a desire to keep the heat on NATO and see if they will pony up the resources." But he added: "If they aren't willing to do that," the United States may have to change its policy.

Violence is up significantly in Afghanistan this year, Mullen said, citing previously undisclosed figures that attacks are up 27 percent overall -- including a 60 percent spike in the southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban resurgence is strongest. Suicide bombings, roadside bombs, and other tactics common in Iraq have increased, Gates said.

Meanwhile, cross-border attacks continue from Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan. Some weapons and financing are flowing in from Iran as well, although Gates said Iran's role is not as yet "decisive."

Gates had previously urged NATO to fulfill its commitments to provide troops and equipment, and he urged more flexibility in deploying them. But yesterday's testimony was particularly pointed -- coming the day before he leaves for Scotland for a meeting of defense ministers from countries with troops in southern Afghanistan.

Mullen echoed Gates on NATO's shortcomings in Afghanistan in his testimony before the committee.

"What seems to be growing is a classic insurgency. It requires a well-coordinated counterinsurgency strategy, fully supported by security improvements," Mullen said. But he said the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command is "plagued by shortfalls in capability and capacity, and constrained by a host of caveats that limit its ability."

Pressed by lawmakers on whether the United States should not shift more of its military resources to Afghanistan, Gates and Mullen held firm, saying Iraq remains the overarching priority for stretched U.S. forces.

"In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," Mullen said. "There is a limit to what we can apply to Afghanistan."

Gates said that after extending the tour of a brigade of 3,500 troops from the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan this year, and also keeping a helicopter contingent in Kandahar for six extra months, he is not inclined to do more now.

"I have refused to extend our helicopter cut . . . to ISAF beyond the end of January," Gates said.

Gates later qualified his criticism by praising British, Canadian and Australian forces, which he said have "more than stepped up" in combat roles. "We should not use a brush that paints too broadly in terms of speaking of our allies and friends," he said.

One of the most pressing needs in Afghanistan is for about 3,500 additional trainers for the Afghan police, a force that Gates said suffers from "corruption and illiteracy." Because the European Union did not come through, he said, the United States has had to divert some U.S. trainers from the Afghan army to the police. Mullen confirmed that the United States has approved an increase in the manpower goal of the Afghan army from 70,000 to 80,000, creating a need for the additional U.S. trainers.

"The European effort on the police training has been, to be diplomatic . . . disappointing," Gates said.

In a separate interview, one senior military official pointed to a vivid symbol of the disappointment over NATO's unfulfilled promises. Behind the desk of U.S. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who commands the ISAF in Afghanistan, is a framed matrix showing all the countries that have offered to provide security and other resources in Afghanistan, with the significant gaps highlighted in color.

"It isn't pretty, and it isn't changing," one official said of the chart. "What's the problem? We're looking for trainers."

Another source of conflict is counternarcotics strategy. Gates said the United States was all but alone in advocating aerial spraying of Afghan poppy crops, which he said produce about 90 percent of the world's opium -- most of which goes to markets in Europe.

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