WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday denied reports of discontent between Washington and NATO allies over Afghanistan, a day after a newspaper quoted him criticizing NATO’s counterinsurgency skills.
Gates projected an image of unity among Western nations involved in Afghanistan during a Pentagon news briefing, praising the “valor and sacrifice” of NATO forces battling Taliban militants in the country’s volatile south.
“Allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan,” the U.S. defense chief said in remarks that struck a conciliatory tone.
The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday published an interview with Gates in which he questioned whether NATO forces and advisers had the training to tackle Taliban and other insurgents behind rising bloodshed in southern Afghanistan.
“Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency. They were trained for the Fulda Gap,” he said, referring to the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was considered most likely during the Cold War.
His remarks appeared a day after Gates ordered an extra 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan and appeared to underscore tensions among allies over the conduct of the conflict, which began after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
CONCERN AMONG ALLIES
NATO allies responded to the Times interview with concern.
Britain insisted its troops had extensive counterinsurgency training, while the Netherlands summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation. Gates phoned his Canadian counterpart to say his quotes had been taken out of context.
Gates’ Thursday briefing, originally expected in the afternoon, was rescheduled to a morning hour that Pentagon officials said would meet European news media deadlines.
He said the extra U.S. deployment did “not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations.”
“I mention this because there have been several recent media reports of discontent in the United States and among other NATO members about operations in Afghanistan,” he said. “This does not reflect reality or, I believe, the views of our governments.”
But Gates, who had struggled in vain for months to convince other states to send more troops, also reiterated his comments about inadequate NATO training for counterinsurgency operations in an alliance set up to confront the Soviet Union.
“We have to acknowledge that the alliance as a whole has not trained for counterinsurgency operations even though individual countries have considerable expertise at and success in this arena,” Gates said.
“A coalition always faces stresses and strains,” he added. “But the trans-Atlantic alliance is in Afghanistan together.”
In an interview earlier on Thursday with National Public Radio, Gates said the United States did not plan to send more troops to Afghanistan beyond the additional Marines promised this week despite a lingering shortfall in trainers for the Afghan forces.
He said he had reluctantly asked President George W. Bush to approve the additional troops because it was clear European nations would not boost their force levels in Afghanistan.
The protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and in Iraq have led to strains in the U.S. armed forces.