U.S. Presses Allies for More Afghan Troops

Robert M. Gates said he was not pointing fingers.
Robert M. Gates said he was not pointing fingers. (Sebastian Zwez - AP)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 11, 2008

MUNICH, Feb. 10 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates challenged European military leaders and lawmakers Sunday to bolster support for the war in Afghanistan, warning NATO members that an unwillingness to shoulder the burdens of war equally "would effectively destroy the alliance."

Gates also sought to convince a skeptical European public that failure in Afghanistan would raise the likelihood of terrorist attacks at home. Citing recent attacks and plots by Islamic radicals in London, Madrid, Paris and Barcelona, the Pentagon chief said the threat would grow worse if NATO allowed the Taliban and al-Qaeda to resurrect their organizations in South Asia.

"I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security," he said in a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual gathering of European politicians, diplomats and military officials. "Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York."

Gates's comments were his latest attempt in recent weeks to persuade NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan, especially the southern part of the country, where fighting has been fierce and the Taliban controls wide swaths of territory. So far, he has been largely unsuccessful, and some NATO members said they were under increasing political pressure to withdraw their forces altogether.

Canada has threatened to pull out its contingent of 2,500 soldiers -- mostly based in the southern province of Kandahar -- if other NATO members do not offer reinforcements soon.

With no one else filling the gap, the Pentagon recently announced it would send 3,200 more Marines to Afghanistan, but only for a seven-month tour.

Gates said too many European countries have been content to participate only in less risky peacekeeping and training operations. Repeating comments he made last week on Capitol Hill, he said NATO risked becoming a "two-tiered alliance" if certain countries, which he did not name, continued to shy away from combat.

"Some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying," he said.

Such remarks have irked some NATO members, who say the Pentagon is unfairly blaming its allies for the inability to win a lasting victory over the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and other insurgents.

German officials, in particular, have taken offense. Germany recently agreed to send 200 soldiers to Afghanistan as part of a "quick reaction force," on top of 3,200 troops already deployed there. But Germany has resisted pleas that it otherwise extend its operations beyond the relatively peaceful northern part of the country, where its forces concentrate on reconstruction and training.

In a question-and-answer session after Gates's speech, Reinhard Buetikofer, a leader of the Greens party in Germany, criticized the defense secretary for what he called "an attempt at leadership by finger-pointing and scapegoating." Buetikofer noted that Germany has the third-largest contingent of foreign troops in Afghanistan and that 26 of its soldiers have died there.

He also sought to shift the blame for the mission's shortcomings back to Washington. "Who was distracted from Afghanistan in 2003?" he asked Gates, referring to the invasion of Iraq.

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