Friday, January 18, 2008

BRUSSELS — Support for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ criticism of other NATO members’ performance in Afghanistan appeared from an unexpected source yesterday — a European defense specialist who is closely linked to senior NATO officials.

“Mr. Gates is absolutely right,” said Giles Merritt, director of the Security and Defense Agenda, an influential military think tank in Brussels which counts NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer among its patrons.

“It’s quite clear that the Europeans as a whole have not lived up to their commitments [in Afghanistan],” Mr. Merritt said in an interview.

“There seems to be widespread agreement that NATO just isn’t getting it right,” Mr. Merritt added. “The NATO performance in Afghanistan is rather symptomatic of the European disarray in defense in general.

“There’s no question that European allies, with the exception of the British and to some degree the French, have sat on their hands and haven’t been keeping up their defense effort, and this has reflected on the situation in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Merritt referred to Mr. Gates’ comments this week to the Los Angeles Times, which quoted him saying: “I’m worried we have some military forces [in Afghanistan] that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations.

“Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency … this is not something they have any experience with,” Mr. Gates added. The article quoted several senior U.S. officers saying the tasks carried out by other nations were of an inadequate standard.

Mr. Gates sought to soothe the allies’ hurt feelings yesterday, saying at a Pentagon press conference that allied forces “have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan.”

“They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most grueling conditions imaginable,” he added. “As a result of the valor and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses.”

But Mr. Merritt suggested the secretary’s original remarks may have been a deliberate attempt to provoke the allies into thinking more about Afghanistan.

“I think it’s rare that top politicians just let things slip out by accident,” he said. “It’s a common gambit by politicians to carefully plan something and then say they were misquoted, but meanwhile the message has gotten out loud and clear.”

The United States has privately expressed its frustration at the lack of support from NATO’s European members on several occasions. Unable to secure new troop commitments from Europe, the Bush administration this week announced that 3,200 U.S. Marines would temporarily be added to the 27,000-strong American contingent in Afghanistan.

“The defense secretary must have grown tired of [the lack of support] and wondered if he’d get more support if he said it in public. It may be a catalyst,” Mr. Merritt said.

Mr. Merritt also agreed with Mr. Gates that European troops are poorly trained for counterinsurgency duties — a comment the secretary repeated yesterday.

“Nobody is [trained for that] really,” Mr. Merritt said. “The American troops have had a crash course in Iraq and Afghanistan on counterinsurgency.

“To say that the British have no experience in counterinsurgency is plainly wrong. All the NATO armed forces, probably including America, have a lot yet to learn about the counterinsurgency operation.”

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