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Trying to soothe feelings in Europe, Gates praises NATO’s ’powerful role’ in Afghanistan

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Trying to soothe feelings in Europe, Gates praises NATO’s ’powerful role’ in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright, takes part in a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008.

    WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that sending Marines to Afghanistan will keep pressure on the Taliban and doesn’t ‘‘reflect dissatisfaction’’ with NATO countries’ performance.
    He was trying to smooth over comments a day earlier that sparked an international furor. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that Gates said U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan are doing a terrific job but that he is concerned that NATO allies are not well trained in counterinsurgency operations.
    ‘‘Allied forces ... have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan,’’ Gates told a Pentagon press conference, which officials said had purposely been rescheduled for earlier in the day Thursday to meet European news deadlines.
    ‘‘They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most grueling conditions imaginable,’’ Gates said of NATO forces. ‘‘As a result of the valor and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses.’’
    But Gates also repeated his concern that NATO forces were better trained for Cold War-era fighting than they are for today’s threats, such as insurgencies.
    ‘‘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 at, and success in, this arena,’’ he said.
    Seeking to calm the uproar, he added: ‘‘We must overcome in good faith and mutual respect the issues that provoke our alliance and keep focused on the mission that unites us.’’
    Gates said he had personally phoned his Canadian counterpart Wednesday to explain his position.
    In Toronto, Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay described the call. ‘‘I spoke to him (Gates) and he said ’Canada was the last country I would make those comments about,’ and they were not meant to be disparaging or to diminish the effort Canada has put forward,’’ MacKay said.
    Gates noted the Dutch parliament had just voted to extend its troop commitment to Afghanistan for another two years.
    ‘‘I think people are accepting their responsibilities, especially those that are already there,’’ Gates said.
    Gates’ comments in Wednesday’s newspaper had spurred the Dutch Defense Ministry to summon the U.S. ambassador for an explanation, and they prompted NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to retort, ‘‘All the countries that are in the south do an excellent job. Full stop.’’
    One British lawmaker, Patrick Mercer, condemned Gates’ comments as ‘‘bloody outrageous’’ and added, ‘‘I would beg the Americans to understand that we are their closest allies, and our men are bleeding and dying in large numbers.’’
    As Pentagon officials scrambled publicly to calm the storm, other officials and experts quietly acknowledged that NATO nations don’t have the capabilities needed to fight an insurgency, particularly an insurgency many believe has grown because the U.S. did not wipe it out after the 2001 invasion. NATO forces initially deployed to Afghanistan with the understanding that they would be doing peacekeeping work.
    Gates said he is sending 3,200 more Marines to Afghanistan to keep pressure on the Taliban and accelerate the training of Afghan security forces.
    ‘‘This deployment of Marines does not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations,’’ Gates said.
    Three are more than 40,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan. Some 27,000 of them are U.S., including 14,000 with the NATO-led coalition and 13,000 training Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
    On Iraq, Gates said that ‘‘all available evidence’’ shows U.S. plans to withdraw five combat brigades through next summer remain on track — which would bring the overall troop level to about 130,000 or so. And he made clear to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, that conditions on the ground will determine whether further troop withdrawals can be made through the end of 2008.
    ‘‘We will wait to see General Petraeus’ evaluation in March as far as what we might be able to do in July,’’ Gates said, adding that he remains hopeful that ‘‘the pace of the drawdowns in the first half of the year will continue in the second half of the year.’’
    Previously, Gates expressed hopes the U.S. military presence in Iraq can drop to around 100,000 troops before President Bush leaves office.
    Associated Press reporter Pauline Jelinek contributed to this story from Washington.

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