January 16, 2008 at 1:49 PM EST
BRUSSELS — Some of American's closest NATO allies reacted with surprise and disbelief Wednesday to reported comments from Defence Secretary Robert Gates suggesting that their troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan are not up to the job.
The Dutch Defence Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation of a Los Angeles Times article that said Mr. Gates complained about soldiers from Canada, Britain and the Netherlands not knowing how to fight a guerrilla insurgency.
In Ottawa, the Liberal opposition demanded the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper call in the U.S. ambassador to Canada — or seek direct clarification from Mr. Gates himself.
At the very least the comments smack of insensitivity in light of the death of a Canadian soldier north of Kandahar on Wendnesday, said defence critic Denis Coderre.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)
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"We are paying the price in lives," he said. "Our men and women know how to fight. We need to know who he was talking about; which countries."
In Washington, Mr. Gates' spokesman Geoff Morrell said the secretary had "read the article and is disturbed by what he read."
Mr. Morrell did not challenge the accuracy of the quotes in the story, but said he thought it left the wrong impression — that Mr. Gates had singled out a particular country.
"For the record he did not — to the L.A. Times or at any time otherwise — publicly ever criticize any single country for their performance in or commitment to the mission in Afghanistan," Mr. Morrell told Pentagon reporters in Washington.
Instead, Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates had pointed out that "NATO as an alliance, does not train for counterinsurgency. The alliance has never had to do it before."
In Britain, Conservative MP Patrick Mercer said Mr. Gates' reported comments were "bloody outrageous."
"I would beg the Americans to understand that we are their closest allies, and our men are bleeding and dying in large numbers," Mr. Mercer, a former British infantry officer, told The Associated Press.
"These sorts of things are just not helpful among allied nations."
The United States has regularly criticized Germany, France, Italy and other allies that refuse to allow their troops in Afghanistan to join U.S. forces on the front line against the Taliban in the insurgents' southern strongholds.
According to the LA Times, Mr. Gates raised doubts about countries that have sent significant numbers of combat troops to fight in the south, often in the face of widespread opposition at home.
"I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," the paper quoted him as saying in an interview. "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency."
NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer moved quickly to defend the allied troops.
"All the countries that are in the south do an excellent job. Full stop," he told reporters at NATO headquarters.
Privately, several NATO officials were aghast at Mr. Gates' reported comments, fearing they would add to tension within the alliance where Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have generally stood by Washington in urging more reluctant allies to do more in the fight against the Taliban.
A senior military officer from one nation heavily engaged in the southern fighting said Canadians and Europeans had scored major successes against the Taliban. "They have been dealt a severe blow by the very people (Mr. Gates) appears to talking about," said the officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
He acknowledged that some of NATO's smaller and newer members lacked counterinsurgency experience, but said that did not apply to the British and Canadians. The Dutch also defended their record combining counterinsurgency with reconstruction in the volatile southern province of Uruzgan.
"Our troops, men and women, are well-prepared for the mission," said Col. Nico Geerts, the Dutch commander in Uruzgan. "Everyone in the south, the British, the Canadians, the Romanians and our other allies, are working hard here. ... I wouldn't know what the secretary of defence of America is basing this on."
Mr. Gates reported comments were published the day after President George W. Bush authorized the deployment of 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan in April.
Most will be deployed in the south to strengthen NATO troops there ahead of an expected increase of Taliban activity with the spring snow thaw. U.S. officials expressed frustration that they were forced to send troops — already stretched in Iraq — because allies failed to offer reinforcements.
The new deployment will bring the total number of U.S. forces there to around 30,000, the highest level since the 2001 invasion. The U.S. has 14,000 troops with the 42,000-strong NATO-led force, the rest are training Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaeda terrorists.
In Washington, Rep. Duncan Hunter, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, warned that Congress could restrict access to defence contracts for allies who did not pull their weight.
However, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands have a bigger proportion of their armed forces serving with the NATO force in Afghanistan than the United States. Britain with 7,753 troops, has 4 per cent of its military, compared with 1.1 per cent of U.S. armed forces serving with the NATO force.
British and Dutch officials refused to believe Mr. Gates' comment were aimed at them.
"Our people down there are pretty well trained in counterinsurgency," said retired Col. Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003. "They have been carrying out some pretty intensive offensive operations against the Taliban, and they have been winning over the community. Counterinsurgency is a combination of those two things."
"We assume this was a misunderstanding," Dutch Defence Minister Eimert van Middelkoop told the Dutch broadcaster NOS. "This is not the Robert Gates we have come to know. It's also not the manner in which you treat each other when you have to co-operate with each other in the south of Afghanistan."