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US Congress Hears About NATO Problems in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, are emphasizing the importance of NATO cooperation in the fight against insurgents. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Much of Gates' testimony, and questions from lawmakers on the House and Senate armed services committees, focused on Afghanistan, and problems the United States has in getting more NATO support on the ground in the most dangerous areas of the country.

Referring to upcoming NATO meetings in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Gates says he intends to press alliance officials on the need for greater coordination in civil efforts in Afghanistan, and long-term strategy.

"What NATO needs is a three to five-year strategy that looks out beyond the end of 2008, beyond 2009, where do we want to have Afghanistan, where do we see Afghanistan being in three to five years, and what kind of forces will it take, what kind of civil commitment will it take, what kind of economic aid and development," said Secretary Gates.

Gates points to what he calls success in the security and military arenas, including a decline in violence over the past two years in the East where he describes counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban as going very well.

He says NATO commanders meeting in Bucharest in April will approve a strategy with benchmarks he hopes will help educate European publics about the importance of a stronger NATO role.

But he had this response to Republican Senator Susan Collins who asked about prospects that NATO contributions will enable the U.S. to reduce its military presence.

"I've been working this problem pretty steadfastly for many months at this point, and I would say that I am not particularly optimistic," he said.

Gates says there are signs some NATO governments are ready to make more meaningful rather than symbolic contributions, adding he hopes to have clearer indications of this in Vilnius.

Republican Congressman John Kline reflects congressional impatience on the issue.

"I again wish you good luck in your talks with our NATO allies, we really need to fix that shortfall," said Congressman Kline.

The head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, pointed to plans by Poland to increase forces and equipment in coming months.

Such steps will be helpful, McNeill told reporters at the Pentagon, but will likely not enable the U.S. and allies to close what he calls a gap between Afghan national forces and an under-resourced international force.

Adding that a key will be effective capacity in the Afghan army and police, he also underscored the importance of cooperation with Pakistan.

"Anyone who does not consider Afghanistan in a regional context is going to get it wrong, and long term security and stability within Afghanistan will be in a large part dependent on the help and the support of the neighbors," said General McNeill.

Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen that the U.S. and its allies must work hard to avoid a failure of the mission in Afghanistan that would damage U.S. security and NATO.

The United States and Britain made a joint call Wednesday for NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.