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Old 01-17-2008, 12:00 AM   #1
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"Gates slams NATO force in southern Afghanistan"

"Gates slams NATO force in southern Afghanistan"

Wed Jan 16, 9:02 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Defense Secretary Robert Gates unleashed a storm on Wednesday by criticizing NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, saying they were ill-prepared to fight an insurgency.

"I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations," Gates told the Los Angeles Times. "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency."

Troops mainly from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are deployed in southern Afghanistan bearing the brunt of a fierce resurgence by the Taliban Islamic militia, which left around 6,000 people dead, including some 220 international soldiers.

Gates' rare public criticism triggered surprise in NATO and among US allies, and came a day after the United States decided to send 3,200 extra troops to Afghanistan.

"I have the greatest respect for what the allies are doing in the west, the north, the east and the south," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

"And perhaps more specifically for what is being done in the south. All the countries in the south -- where the going gets tough -- are doing excellent work," he said. Australia and Denmark also have forces in the region.

The Dutch government went a step further summoning the US ambassador in The Hague to explain the comments made by Gates.

"We do not recognize ourselves in the image conjured" by Gates, Dutch Defence Secretary Eimert van Middelkoop said, arguing that Dutch troops had acted with experience and professionalism.

State Department Sean McCormack confirmed the US ambassador in The Hague was called in to clarify the remarks, but said Gates "was not directing his comments at any one country in particular, but at the alliance as a whole, which includes us."

Nearly 1,665 Dutch soldiers are deployed in Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Gates told the LA Times that in eastern Afghanistan, troops led by General David Rodriguez, commander of US forces there, "are doing a terrific job."

"They've got the (counter-insurgency) thing down pat. But I think our allies over there, this is not something they have any experience with," the defense secretary said.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay on Wednesday played down the criticism, saying Gates had just told him by telephone the remarks were "taken out of context."

"They were comments made of a general nature about the need to focus training of NATO and the alliance on counter insurgency," MacKay said of Gates' explanation, adding: "his comments were certainly not directed at Canada."

On Tuesday, the Pentagon again urged NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan in order to fill a shortfall, or at the least replace temporary US reinforcements coming home later this year.

The US marine reinforcement of 3,200 extra troops will increase the US presence in Afghanistan by about 10 percent, from 27,000 to about 30,000.

But coalition commanders in Afghanistan have complained they are short three infantry battalions, 3,000 trainers and helicopters, which were promised but not delivered by NATO members.

With its military already heavily engaged in Iraq, Washington has increased pressure on NATO allies to increase their contributions, with little success.

NATO is engaged in its most ambitious mission ever trying to spread the rule of President Hamid Karzai's weak central government into more lawless parts of Afghanistan.

But ISAF troops have struggled to defeat the insurgency, particularly in the south near the mountainous border with Pakistan.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell Wednesday sought to temper the defense secretary's comments saying: "He did not publicly ever criticize any single country for their performance in or commitment to our mission in Afghanistan.

"In fact he is going through great pains to praise those countries who are at great risk taking the fight to the enemy" in southern Afghanistan, Morrell said.

For its part, the United States has had "some success with counter-insurgency, but we've had to learn from our mistakes," Morrell said.

"We've been now doing this for six, seven years, so we are figuring it out."

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