Gates urges allies not to quit Afghanistan

Forced into damage control after criticizing NATO shortcomings in Afghanistan, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates still had a message Thursday for Canada and any other allies thinking of withdrawing its troops – don’t.

Gates signalled that more NATO soldiers are needed in Afghanistan as he played down any concern that some NATO countries might pull their troops out. Although Gates made no mention of the ongoing debate in Canada over whether the deployment of 2,500 soldiers to Kandahar ought to be extended, he made it clear that the Pentagon’s recent decision to deploy 3,200 troops to the south was not permanent.

“One of the things that I have spoken about in my telephone calls and that I will follow up in with letters to some of my counterparts is for them to be thinking seriously about who can backfill against the marines when the marines leave early next winter, so that that capability won’t be lost,” said Gates.

“In fact, the Dutch have just extended. Their parliament has just voted to extend their commitment by two years, so I think that the people are accepting their responsibilities, particularly those that are already there.”

Canada’s Parliament is to vote as early as next month on whether to extend the Armed Forces mission beyond February 2009. The independent Manley commission is to release its report next week on_Canada’s military future in Afghanistan.

 In the meantime, Gates said the deployment of marines was designed to shore up forces in “the toughest part of the country.” That decision, he added, had nothing to do with any misgivings about the performance of Canadians already there.

“I have no problems with the Canadians,” he said.

Gates said Thursday he made a special effort to reassure Canada after the Los Angeles Times quoted him as being critical of NATO’s ability to fight a counterinsurgency.

“I did reach out to the Canadian defence minister yesterday. They had suffered a loss near Kandahar, I think the day before, and I wanted to make sure they understood our respect for their contribution and how much of an impact they are making,” Gates told a news conference in Washington one day after the Pentagon moved to avert a diplomatic row with its allies after the interview,

Gates lauded Canada by name, along with its other major allies for their “valour and sacrifice” in fighting on the front lines of the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan. His list also included Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also responded to the controversy Thursday, saying the comments made by Gates should not be misinterpreted.

“Officials from the United States at all levels have always conveyed their appreciation and confidence in Canadian Forces and I’ve heard that from both military and non-military sources and I believe Secretary Gates conveyed that to Minister MacKay yesterday. So there should be no misinterpretation of those comments vis a vis Canada,” the prime minister told a news conference in Saskatchewan.

Harper also said that the American contribution to the mission in Afghanistan has been “significant”_and “we need to see NATO_as a whole step up to the plate.”

Gates had already made a round of telephone calls to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, as well as his alliance counterparts – including Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay – on Tuesday to give them advance notice of the Pentagon’s attempt to deploy an additional 3,200 marines to the south in attempt to counter the expected spring offensive by the Taliban.

By chance, that was the same day that Canada’s suffered its 77th military fatality in Afghanistan, so Gates was also able to offer his condolences.

But once the imbroglio with the Times story erupted Wednesday, Gates was on the phone again to MacKay to reassure him that none of his remarks was directed towards Canada.

MacKay said Gates told him he had been quoted out of context, but expressed “regret and embarrassment” over the report.

MacKay said he was originally “taken aback” by the report, but that he accepted Gates’s explanation.

Gates reiterated that NATO as a whole has had a lot to learn about fighting counterinsurgencies.

Gates said he has aired his views on NATO’s shortcomings in the past, including at the recent gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland, of countries fighting in the south. The U.S. is urging its allies to seek counterinsurgency training in Kabul with American forces, he added.

“We have to acknowledge the reality that the alliance as a whole has not trained for counterinsurgency operations even though individual countries have considerable expertise,” he said.

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