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Afghan War Strains U.S., Allies' Bond
Associated Press  |  February 07, 2008
VILNIUS, Lithuania - As the stakes in Afghanistan grow, so do tensions between the United States and the European allies the U.S. empowered more than a year ago to take the lead on the battlefield.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates makes no secret of his frustration that repeated appeals to the allies to contribute more troops - and to allow commanders to use them with fewer restrictions - fall flat.

NATO, through its International Security Assistance Force, is in charge of the war, although the top commander is an American, Army Gen. Daniel McNeill, and the United States is the biggest provider of troops. Of the 42,000 total troops, about 14,000 are American, plus the United States has another 13,000 operating separately in eastern Afghanistan hunting terrorists and training Afghan forces.

The problem is that McNeill says he needs even more troops, in particular in southern Afghanistan where the fight against Taliban resistance has been increasingly deadly, and the Europeans have balked. Gates has written sharply worded letters to his European counterparts urging them to send more troops, to no avail.

Gates told a Senate panel Feb. 6 before flying from Washington to Vilnius that in meetings here with NATO defense ministers he "once again will become a nag on the issue."

Nagging NATO is nothing new for Washington, which led the founding of the alliance 59 years ago. But when it comes to Afghanistan, the problem of persuading allies to do more is of historic importance. At risk is the possibility of failing to transform Afghanistan into a functioning state, and thus losing ground in a global effort to defeat the Islamic extremist movement that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Also at stake is the future of NATO itself. One of the underpinnings of the alliance is a commitment to sharing the burdens of defense, not just of defending the borders of Europe, as during the Cold War, but now also defending against the less defined threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Gates said Feb. 6 he fears NATO may become a "two-tiered alliance," with "some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not" - in other words, an alliance in name only.

Gates is not alone in that view.

In a study published last week titled, "Saving Afghanistan," the Atlantic Council, led by former NATO commander Gen. James Jones, said it is critical that NATO provide fresh forces in southern Afghanistan - in part to replace 2,200 Marines that Gates is sending there for a one-time reinforcement.

"If NATO cannot provide new forces to fight in the south, its credibility will be dealt a powerful blow," the Jones study concluded, "throwing into doubts its future cohesion and hence viability." The opening sentence of the Jones study underscored the reason why NATO's dilemma is so important.

"Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," it said.

In his Senate testimony, Gates said there is no doubt that al-Qaida, which used Afghanistan as a haven in which to train and to execute the plan to attack New York and Washington with hijacked jetliners, is still intent on hitting the United States again. And he said Europe also is a target.

At the same time Gates said some European governments simply are not able to overcome domestic opposition to fighting in Afghanistan. He urged members of the Senate to meet face-to-face with their European counterparts in an effort to persuade them that changing public opinion on the war is vital.

"They have to be more courageous" in insisting on the importance of winning in Afghanistan, Gates said, referring to European parliamentarians. Many in Europe believe the Bush administration has put too much emphasis on the military aspects of stabilizing Afghanistan and not enough on reconstruction and humanitarian aid. Gates, however, insists that more military muscle is part of the solution.

It's a theme he has repeated virtually from the start of his tenure at the Pentagon.

In February 2007, speaking to defense officials and experts at a conference in Munich, Germany, Gates said all allies agree on the need to pursue a "comprehensive strategy" combining military effort with help in economics, governance and counter-drug operations. But he stressed that NATO needs to put up more money and more troops. "Our failure to do so would be a mark of shame," he said.

In Heidelberg, Germany, last October at a gathering of European army chiefs Gates adopted an even tougher tone. He questioned the commitment of some NATO allies to winning in Afghanistan, saying the outcome there was at "real risk" because some were unwilling to provide enough troops and resources to the mission. "In Afghanistan a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens," he said.

"The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission - and with it, the credibility of NATO - at real risk," he added.

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