By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008
OHRID, Macedonia, Oct. 8 -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 meeting with other NATO defense officials 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, a 12-member organization composed of 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," he said.
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 security. The United States 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.
"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 official name, the Republic of Macedonia. Greece, a veto-holding member of the alliance, insists that the name "Macedonia" belongs to a Greek province and says Macedonia's use of it implies territorial ambitions over the Greek province, a claim 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."
U.S. officials said they would like to see the issue resolved before a summit of NATO country leaders in December, when further enlargement of the alliance will again be considered.
Gates also met with the defense minister of Ukraine, which, with U.S. support, hopes to enter NATO.
But some European countries such as Germany oppose bringing in either Ukraine or Georgia, saying it will further inflame relations with Russia. That position appears to have hardened in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia this summer.
In Ukraine, the issue has been complicated by political turmoil in the pro-Western government -- a coalition between the party of Yulia Tymoshenko and the allies of President Viktor Yushchenko. On Wednesday, after the meeting in Macedonia, Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called for an early election.