WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the top U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan issued a blunt assessment Wednesday of the alliance’s shortcomings in that country, arguing that the unwillingness of some member states to risk combat casualties is threatening NATO’s future and undermining the prosecution of the Afghan war.
“I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security, and others who are not,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps get even worse.”
American and other NATO officials are sparring over force levels, missions and strategy as violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest levels since the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
Although coalition forces have defeated the Taliban in many tactical engagements, analysts say NATO remains in a “strategic stalemate” because of lagging reconstruction and governance efforts.
The disputes have pitted Washington against its European partners in a manner rarely seen since the end of the Cold War, casting doubts on the credibility and purpose of the alliance.
Gates, who departs today for a two-day meeting with NATO defense ministers in Lithuania, said he will urge European countries to loosen the “caveats” they place on their troops – rules limiting where they can be deployed or whether they can engage in battle – and to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.
Gen. Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, described in an interview how he is hamstrung by the combat restraints on some NATO troops, insufficient forces and intelligence capabilities, and a host of other political and military obstacles that undercut effective operations.
“Caveats deny me the ability to plan and prosecute,” McNeill said. “I can’t amass them to where I might have a decisive point. … Obviously I can’t move as quickly as I want to,” McNeill said.
NATO forces took charge of the Afghan mission in 2006.
Gates said Wednesday that his decision to send 3,200 Marines into Afghanistan this spring stems in part from the shortfalls by NATO partners.
Although he praised the Canadians, British, Australians, Dutch and Danes for “doing their part,” Gates told the committee that he has written all NATO defense ministers asking them to “dig deeper” to solve the problems in Afghanistan.