US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the NATO alliance was at risk if it became split between members willing and unwilling to fight as he urged Europeans to support the Afghan mission with more troops.
Afghanistan topped the agenda at the Munich security conference
Gates sharply criticized European NATO partners for holding back from contributing combat troops to Afghanistan where a 43,000-strong NATO mission is battling Taliban insurgents in the country's dangerous south.
Gates has launched a diplomatic drive to persuade Europeans to step up support
"A few allies in NATO shouldn't have the luxury to decide only for stabilization and civilian operations thereby forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of fighting and dying," Gates told a group of high-profile diplomats at a key security conference in the southern German city of Munich on Sunday, Feb 10. The US has some 29,000 troops in Afghanistan.
"We must not, we cannot, become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not," Gates said. "Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance," Gates told delegates at the conference.
In recent weeks, Gates has pressed Berlin and other allies to provide more troops and resources for the NATO force in Afghanistan
Gates soothes tensions with Germany
The pressure has raised problems for the German government caught between maintaining good relations with Washington and selling a risky military mission to increasingly sceptical voters at home. Germany, which has confined its 3,200 troops to the safer north of Afghanistan where they are largely involved in civil reconstruction, has repeatedly ruled out sending combat troops to the south.
Earlier, the Pentagon chief attempted to calm tensions with Germany, the third largest troop provider in Afghanistan, over NATO's Afghan mission, saying ties would not suffer if Berlin did not provide fresh troops.
NATO has warned that troops are overstretched in Afghanistan
"Any additional numbers from any country are most appreciated," Gates told reporters at the conference. "Maybe some will be able to help. It certainly will not be seen as negative in our bilateral relations if some are not able to do more."
Some German politicians criticised Gates after his speech, with one accusing him of public "finger pointing," but the Pentagon chief said he had not meant to single out specific countries and called Germany "a little overly sensitive."
"This is a problem that the alliance has, not that any individual country has," Gates said. "The finger was never pointed in Germany's direction."
Germany defends Afghan mission
Chancellor Angela Merkel defended Germany's engagement in a newspaper interview published on Sunday, and confirmed the country would not alter its mission in Afghanistan, despite a report in the weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday that said Germany was planning to expand the number of soldiers by 1,000 to 4,500.
"We've got a strong engagement with our responsibilities in the north," she told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, adding "it's not the case that 'nothing is going on there."
Merkel defended Germany's involvement in northern Afghanistan
"We approved a mandate in parliament just a few months ago for the operation and that remains valid until October. Nothing about that will be changed."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier too urged the US to be fair in the row over German troops in Afghanistan.
"I'm not surprised that there are debates over individual contributions. But they must be fair ones," Steinmeier told German news magazine Focus.
Gates: Europe not aware of danger
At the same time, Gates said at the security conference that Europeans seemed unconvinced by the involvement in Afghanistan.
"Many Europeans question the worth of our actions and doubt whether the mission is worth the lives of their sons and daughters," Gates said. "Fragile coalition governments make it difficult to take on this risk."
The Pentagon chief said he was worried that many people in Europe had not understood the magnitude of the direct threat to European security.
Gates bemoaned the fact that many Europeans were questioning the merits of NATO's role in Afghanistan and were calling for their
troops to be pulled out, arguing that there was a direct link between the fight against the Taliban and the broader fight against Islamic terrorism.
"With safe havens in the Middle East, and new tactics honed on the battlefield and transmitted via the Internet, violence and terrorism worldwide could surge," he said.
The Pentagon chief appealed this week to Europeans not to let their opposition to the Iraq war color their view of the conflict in Afghanistan.
"I worry that for many Europeans the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are confused and what I want to try and focus on is why Afghanistan is important to Europe," Gates said on Friday.
"I think they [the Europeans] combine the two," Gates continued. "Many of them, I think, have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan and do not understand the very different -- for them -- the very different kind of threat."
"Soldier for soldier, euro for dollar"
Gates' push for more European help in Afghanistan was echoed by Victoria Nuland, the US Ambassador to NATO.
"We will be urgently requesting all our allies, including Germany, at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April to match us soldier for soldier, euro for dollar," Nuland wrote in an article in German daily Berliner Zeitung.
Soldiers from the Afghan army and Canadian troop patroling in Kandahar
Nuland wrote that NATO was confronted with the biggest challenge in its 59-year-old history.
"The mission in Afghanistan is an investment in our common security and a catalyst for adapting our democratic alliance to the demands of the 21st century," she wrote. "If we are successful in the Hindukush, we will be stronger the next time we are called upon to defend our security and values far away from home."
Pressure on Europeans set to grow
Pressure on Europeans from the US to shoulder more security burdens on the international stage is expected to grow regardless of whether the next US administration is Republican or Democratic, experts say.
"Whoever wins the elections will have to reduce the financial and economic burdens that have resulted from the US' foreign and security policy commitments," said Horst Teltschik, the Munich conference organizer this week.
"We will witness more debate on the future international role of NATO and burden-sharing in general and on the responsibility shouldered by the Europeans for resolving conflicts in particular."
"A World in Disarray"
The annual roundtable in Munich's luxurious Bayerischer Hof hotel
was attended by a handful of presidents, dozens of government
ministers and hundreds of security experts from some 50 countries.
The conference's theme -- "A World in Disarray - Shifting Powers
Lack of Strategies" - saw delegates exchange views on a broad variety of issues, such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the
widening rift between the West and Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Leftwing protestors demonstrated against the conference in Munich
Speakers included Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Thousands of leftwing protesters -- 3,000 according to police estimates, 7,000 according to organizers -- gathered in the German city on Saturday evening but failed to disrupt the heavily-guarded conference.
The latest opinion polls indicate Conservatives and Labour separated only by a few percentage points. More than a third of voters have turned away from the big two parties.
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