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Gates says NATO force unable to fight guerrillas

The U.S. Defense chief asserts that troops in southern Afghanistan lack proper training.

January 16, 2008|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In an unusual public criticism, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he believes NATO forces currently deployed in southern Afghanistan do not know how to combat a guerrilla insurgency, a deficiency that could be contributing to the rising violence in the fight against the Taliban.

"I'm worried we're deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," Gates said in an interview.

Gates' criticism comes as the Bush administration has decided to send 3,200 U.S. Marines to southern Afghanistan on a temporary mission to help quell the rising number of attacks. It also comes amid growing friction among allied commanders over the Afghan security situation.

But coming from an administration castigated for its conduct of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such U.S. criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is controversial. Many NATO officials blame inadequate U.S. troop numbers earlier in the war in part for a Taliban resurgence.

"It's been very, very difficult to apply the classic counterinsurgency doctrine because you've had to stabilize the situation sufficiently to start even applying it," said one European NATO official, who discussed the issue on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the alliance. "Even in the classic counterinsurgency doctrine, you've still got to get the fighting down to a level where you can apply the rest of the doctrine."

Gates' views, however, reflect those expressed recently by senior U.S. military officials with responsibility for Afghanistan. Some have said that an overreliance on heavy weaponry, including airstrikes, by NATO forces in the south may unwittingly be contributing to rising violence there.

"Execution of tasks, in my view, has not been appropriate," said one top U.S. officer directly involved in the Afghan campaign who discussed internal assessments on condition of anonymity. "It's not the way to do business, in my opinion. We've got to wean them of this. If they won't change then we're going to have another solution."

Gates has publicly criticized European allies in the past for failing to send adequate numbers of troops and helicopters to the Afghan mission. But concerns about strategy and tactics are usually contained within military and diplomatic channels.

In the interview, Gates compared the troubled experience of the NATO forces in the south -- primarily troops from the closest U.S. allies, Britain and Canada, as well as the Netherlands -- with progress made by American troops in the eastern part of Afghanistan. He traced the failing in part to a Cold War orientation.

"Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency; they were trained for the Fulda Gap," Gates said, referring to the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was deemed most likely.

Gates said he raised his concerns last month in Scotland at a meeting of NATO countries with troops in southern Afghanistan and suggested additional training.

But he added that his concerns did not appear to be shared by the NATO allies. "No one at the table stood up and said: 'I agree with that.' "

The NATO forces are led by a U.S. commander, Army Gen. Dan McNeill, who has called for greater contributions by NATO countries. Some member nations are reluctant to deepen their involvement.

NATO officials bristled at suggestions that non-U.S. forces have been ineffective in implementing a counterinsurgency campaign. They argued that the south, home to Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal heartland that produced the Taliban movement, has long been the most militarily contested region of the country.

The European NATO official, who is directly involved in Afghan planning, angrily denounced the American claims, saying much of the violence is a result of the small number of U.S. troops who had patrolled the region before NATO's takeover in mid-2006, a strategy that allowed the Taliban to reconstitute in the region.

"The reason there is more fighting now is because we've uncovered a very big rock and lots of things are scurrying out," the NATO official said.

Pentagon concerns have risen as violence in the south has steadily increased, even as other parts of Afghanistan have begun to stabilize.

Last year was the deadliest for both U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, according to the website icasualties.org.

But both U.S. and NATO officials have expressed optimism that eastern Afghanistan, which is under the control of U.S. forces led by Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, has substantially improved in recent months.

Rodriguez implemented a campaign that incorporated many of the same tactics being used in Iraq by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Baghdad who co-wrote the military's new counterinsurgency field manual.

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