By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008 3:05 PM
OHRID, Macedonia, Oct. 8 -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday asked defense ministers from southeastern Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan, a message that he is likely to forcefully echo at a NATO summit this week.
"As the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to improve, I urge you to consider sending your military forces to Afghanistan, where there is an urgent need for trainers as they expand their army," Gates said at a meeting of the South-Eastern Europe Defense Ministerial (SEDM), a 12-member organization composed of both NATO members and countries such as Macedonia that want to join the military alliance. "Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, but will also reinforce your important role in ensuring peace and stability around the globe."
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said he needs three more brigades -- 10,000 to 12,000 more troops -- to confront a resurgent Taliban and a general deterioration in the security situation. The U.S. currently has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 22,000 of them part of a NATO force of 48,000 soldiers.
There are more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan from the countries attending the meeting here, including NATO members such as Italy. The meeting's host, Macedonia, has 136 troops in Afghanistan, including a medical team. The country also has a special-forces platoon and an infantry platoon in Iraq, and a U.S. diplomat said Macedonia is considering shifting those forces to Afghanistan.
"The Macedonians have indicated an openness as their Iraq deployment comes to an end to look at augmenting the forces already in Afghanistan," said Philip T. Reeker, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia.
Gates reiterated U.S. support for Macedonia's membership in NATO, which stalled because of dispute with Greece over the country's name, the Republic of Macedonia. Greece, a veto-holding member of the military alliance, insists that the name Macedonia belongs to a Greek province, and calls its neighbor the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Greek officials have said Macedonia's use of its name implies Macedonia has territorial ambitions, a charge denied by the Macedonians.
"The United States strongly supports Macedonia's aspiration to become a full member of NATO," Gates said after a bilateral meeting with the country's president, prime minister and defense minister. "Like many of you, we too were disappointed last April when Macedonia was not invited to join the alliance at the Bucharest summit. We encourage Macedonia and Greece to find an immediate solution to the name issue, which is in the best interests of both parties and the region."
U.S. officials said they would like to see the issue resolved before a NATO summit in December, when the further enlargement of the alliance will again be considered.
Gates also met with the defense minister of Ukraine, another NATO aspirant, but one whose chances of obtaining a Membership Action Plan, a major step towards membership, appear dim. Some European countries, such as Germany, oppose expanding the alliance to include either Ukraine or Georgia, a position that appears to have hardened in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia this summer.
European opponents of Ukraine and Georgia's membership in NATO argue that it will further inflame relations with Russia, and say they fear the implications of extending the obligation of mutual defense among NATO members to either of Russia's neighbors.
The issue has also been complicated by political turmoil in Ukraine, where a pro-Western government -- a coalition between the party of Yulia Tymoshenko and the allies of President Viktor Yushchenko -- appears on the verge of collapse. The two led the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that swept Yushchenko into the presidency, but their political coalition has been marked by repeated clashes. The country's largest opposition party, the pro-Russia Party of the Regions, is opposed to NATO membership for Ukraine.
Tymoshenko has begun to pursue warmer relations with Moscow and recently signed a natural gas deal with Vladimir Putin, her Russian counterpart. She declined to back Yushchenko's condemnation of Russia's invasion of Georgia, an action that the president described as "treasonous."
Public opinion in Ukraine is deeply divided on NATO membership.
"I can assure you that the majority of the government members support Ukrainian NATO membership," Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said after a meeting with Gates. "It appears that as far as the military and economic components of NATO membership are concerned the Ukrainian public is in favor of such integration. But there is also a political element to this, and we have to work a lot to address this issue."
Gates said the United States would continue to support Ukraine's membership regardless of the political complexion of the government.
"It is a time of political transition in Ukraine," Gates said. "We stand ready to work with whatever new coalition may appear."