U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates faces his NATO counterparts at a meeting starting Thursday in Lithuania, just days after comments he made and letters he wrote generated angry responses from some allies. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin reports that is the backdrop for important meetings focused on NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
Secretary Gates has been a popular figure in the NATO alliance, a Bush administration official who is personable, inclusive, not burdened by the baggage of past decisions that were unpopular in Europe, particularly the decision to invade Iraq.
But in January he told the Los Angeles Times he is "worried" that NATO is deploying some military advisers and combat forces to Afghanistan that, in his words, "are not properly trained and ... do not know how to do counterinsurgency operations."
Then, last week, German officials leaked information from a letter he had written calling for Germany to send more troops to Afghanistan, and move its current contingent from the relatively peaceful north to the war-torn south.
Germany rejected the proposal.
"The tide is turning a little bit. Right now, Europeans are somewhat worried because Secretary Gates has been quite aggressive in his requests for more troops or more assistance on the ground in Afghanistan," said Julianne Smith, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Tensions are flaring over this question in Afghanistan. And I would expect over the next couple of days, in fact the next couple of weeks, we are going to see a little bit of sparing between Secretary Gates and other countries in Europe, not just Germany but possibly a couple of others, who have opted not to do more as he has requested in Afghanistan."
That sparing began Tuesday, when Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell had tough words for NATO nations that are not doing what the United States believes they should in Afghanistan.
"I think there is an understanding among many of the troop-contributing nations that there is a real danger of becoming a two-tiered alliance, nations who fight and those who do not," he said. "And so you will hear the secretary talk about this, probably in Vilnius and certainly in Munich, about the need for the alliance collectively to confront what is a threat not just to the United States, but to Europe as well."
In Munich, Secretary Gates will make a major address to an annual European Security Conference on Sunday.
But Geoff Morrell disputes the contention that Secretary Gates will face a hostile reception at the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Lithuania.
"The secretary has an excellent working relationship with, I believe, every defense minister in the alliance," he added. "He looks forward to arriving in Vilnius Thursday morning and getting down to business."
Secretary Gates has tried to ease the sting of his comments to the Los Angeles Times, praising some NATO allies. And he continued to do that at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. But the secretary also continued to criticize other alliance members, and said he will continue his campaign for more forces at the Vilnius meeting.
"I leave here this afternoon to go to a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Vilnius and once again will become a nag on the issue [of troops]," he said. "But I think it is important. And there are allies that are doing their part and are doing well. The Canadians, the British, the Australians, the Dutch, the Danes are really out there on the line and fighting, but there are a number of others that are not."
Secretary Gates has also said the Taliban has suffered what he calls "consistent and repeated" defeats, but analysts say that is not enough. They note that, as in Iraq, Afghanistan needs not only sufficient forces to maintain order once insurgents are cleared from an area, but also enough civilian help with governance, reconstruction and economic development to foster long-term stability.
The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeill, says he expects some further troop commitments to be made in Vilnius, but not as much as he needs.
Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns that if the European allies do not provide enough there could be dire consequences.
"If no one does anything else and we do not see any additional commitments on the military side or the civilian side, I think that this mission is susceptible to failure, and I think it will have major ramifications for not only the people of Afghanistan, but the people of Europe and the United States as well," she added.
Smith says Secretary Gates is right that European militaries are not designed for counterinsurgency, and she says a lack of interest and a lack of money have made the transformation of European forces a slow process.
In addition, she notes that the Bush administration and the war in Afghanistan are generally not popular among Europeans, and most governments in the alliance are coalitions that are particularly susceptible to public pressure. Finally, she notes, many Europeans believe that when they signed on to the idea of NATO taking over most of the Afghanistan mission they believed the effort would involve minimal security operations and mainly reconstruction efforts, whereas now they are being asked to do more and more on the security front.
Last week, two independent analyses published in the United States criticized the allied effort in Afghanistan. One report, written by the former NATO commander retired General James Jones, said NATO is "not winning" in Afghanistan and is in a "strategic stalemate."
Whatever the personal and policy issues may be, the challenge in Vilnius, and at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, will be to change that.