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Gates' Criticism of Afghanistan Forces Riles NATO


At the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates worked to smooth over relations with other NATO countries. Earlier this week, Gates described the U.S. allies as unprepared to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan; that upset some NATO members. One British lawmaker called Gates's comments outrageous.

NPR's Guy Raz reports from the Pentagon.

GUY RAZ: The Defense Secretary had a bad day yesterday. In an interview with the L.A. Times, he was quoted as saying that NATO troops in Afghanistan don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations; that comment rippled through defense ministries across Europe and in Canada. The Dutch defense minister summoned the U.S. ambassador, NATO's secretary general held a press conference to defend NATO's forces, and since then, Gates has been working the phones, calling his NATO counterparts trying to say he didn't mean what he said. And he used today's news conference at the Pentagon to underline his point.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): Allied forces have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan. They have rolled back the Taliban from previous strongholds in the South. They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most grueling conditions imaginable.

RAZ: The division of labor among foreign troops in Afghanistan is somewhat complicated. Overall, it's a NATO-led stability operation. There are about 40,000 NATO-led troops there, and more than half of those troops are Americans serving under NATO's command. But then there are another 13,000 U.S. troops serving solely under U.S. command.

Over the past year, as security conditions in Afghanistan worsened, Pentagon officials began to grumble about NATO's commitment to the mission. There was -and is - a shortage of foreign troops there, so the Pentagon hoped NATO countries would fill that shortage. But internal political opposition in places, like Germany, Canada, even Britain, meant that NATO wouldn't be able to do that, so earlier this week, the Pentagon announced the U.S. would meet that shortfall and deploy another 3,200 Marines to the country.

And privately, some Pentagon officials hinted that the move underscored their belief that the United States was doing all the heavy lifting in Afghanistan. But Secretary Gates, now sensitive to NATO's hurt feelings, also shot down that idea.

Mr. GATES: This deployment of Marines does not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations.

RAZ: So, bygones be bygones - or so Gates hopes - because in a few weeks, he'll face all those NATO defense chiefs at a summit in Eastern Europe.

Guy Raz, NPR News, the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Guy Raz
Guy Raz is the host, co-creator, and editorial director of three NPR programs, including two of its most popular ones: TED Radio Hour and How I Built This.Both shows are heard by more than 14 million people each month around the world. He is also the creator and co-host of NPR's first-ever podcast for kids, Wow In The World.