MUNICH, Germany — The Bush administration is rolling out a diplomatic offensive aimed at persuading Europeans that failure in Afghanistan poses a direct risk to their security.
U.S. officials hope the pitch will bolster flagging European support for the war in Afghanistan and clear the way for European governments to commit more troops there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will make the case in a speech here Sunday, suggests many Europeans have transferred their opposition to the Iraq war to Afghanistan and concluded that the mission has no impact on their lives. “I worry that for many Europeans, the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are confused,” he told reporters. “Many of them…have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan.”
The comments from Mr. Gates are a rare acknowledgment by a senior Bush administration official that the Iraq war has exacted political costs abroad.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization commands a 41,000-person force in Afghanistan, and its commander, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, estimates he needs at least 7,000 more troops. The U.S. is sending 3,200 Marines to make up part of that shortfall but has struggled to find countries willing to deploy additional soldiers to fill the remaining slots.
French officials said Friday that they were considering sending additional forces to restive southern Afghanistan, though they cautioned that the size and scope of the deployment was still being debated and that no decision was expected for at least a few more weeks.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Gates argued that Afghanistan has in the past given Islamic militants a safe haven for planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Europe, making success in Afghanistan vital to European security.
“Al Qaeda and others in that area have played a role in the attacks that have taken place in Europe,” Mr. Gates said. “This is a direct security threat to Europe.”
Mr. Gates’s argument seems likely to be a tough sell, given the depth of anti-American feeling here. Europeans regularly tell pollsters they are more afraid of homegrown Islamic extremists than foreign ones.
“It’s easy for European governments to blindly follow public opinion and avoid doing the heavy lifting,” said Joseph Collins, a professor at the National Defense University and former Pentagon official. “There are huge savings — politically and economically — that accrue to Germany, France and Italy by letting Uncle Sam expend the most blood and treasure.”
Last week, German officials disclosed that Mr. Gates had sent a private letter asking that Berlin send helicopters and thousand of troops to southern Afghanistan, where NATO forces are struggling to beat back the resurgent Taliban. The Germans bluntly rejected the American request and said they would instead send only a few hundred troops to northern Afghanistan, one of the most stable parts of the country.
The reluctance of many European countries to send combat troops to Afghanistan is sparking growing tensions within the NATO alliance. Canada, which has suffered heavy casualties in southern Afghanistan, said recently that it would withdraw its forces from the violent province of Kandahar next January unless other NATO countries agreed to send 1,000 additional troops to the area.