KIEV (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates criticised NATO allies on Monday for failing to send enough troops and equipment to Afghanistan, setting the stage for tense discussions in the alliance later this week.
“I am not satisfied that an alliance whose members have over 2 million soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed for Afghanistan,” Gates told reporters in the Ukraine capital Kiev.
Some 50,000 troops are taking part in the separate NATO and U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. Only the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Canada have major presences where the fighting is worst — in the south and east.
Western armies are overstretched by missions in Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon and elsewhere. Key nations like the Netherlands want to cut troop levels in Afghanistan.
Alliance officials say the NATO force in Afghanistan is some 10 percent below full strength, without giving details.
The Pentagon chief wants the 26-nation bloc to stump up a further 3,000 trainers for the Afghan security forces — which are not seen as able to lead the fight against Taliban insurgents until 2011 at the earliest — plus more combat troops and vital equipment such as helicopters.
Speaking after meeting eastern European defence chiefs, Gates said he would press allies for more at a meeting in the Netherlands on Wednesday and Thursday.
“This will clearly be a principal theme of the NATO defence ministers’ meeting,” he said of talks in the Dutch coastal resort Noordwijk, where the future of the alliance’s 17,000-strong Kosovo peacekeeping force will also be discussed.
Violence has increased sharply in southern Afghanistan over the past two years, the bloodiest period since the Taliban’s radical Islamic government was toppled by U.S.-led coalition forces in late 2001 with some 7,000 killed across the country.
Yet no announcements of major new deployments are due at Noordwijk. Britain has denied suggestions it is preparing reinforcements, as has Denmark.
“This is no force generation meeting,” said a NATO official, noting the next regular attempt to drum up troop offers was set for a meeting at NATO military headquarters next month.
Newspaper De Telegraaf quoted sources at the weekend as saying Dutch Chief of Staff Dick Berlijn had advised The Hague it could keep up to 1,200 soldiers in southern Afghanistan after 2008, down from 1,600 now. The government declined to comment.
Norway is under pressure to help fill any gap left by the Dutch, and in general only small-scale troop offers are on the horizon. Slovakia will increase its presence to around 120, and there is talk of possible Georgian contributions.
NATO is set to plug a shortage of helicopters with a commercial leasing deal for 20 machines, officials said.
In a sign of growing U.S. frustration, Gates is considering withdrawing U.S. forces from Kosovo at some point unless Europe does more in Afghanistan, according to his spokesman.
He has ordered that the 1,600 U.S. troops in Kosovo remain until summer 2008, but then will reconsider the deployment based on Europe’s progress in fulfilling its promises.
Gates on Monday stressed all nations should for now keep forces in the breakaway Serb province, which has threatened to declare itself independent if there is no deal in talks between Belgrade and the Kosovo Albanians due to end by December 10.
The build-up of Turkish troops, tanks and fighter jets ahead of possible strikes at Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq is not on the agenda of the NATO meeting, but could feature in any bilateral contacts between Gates and his Turkish counterpart.
Turkey has said it is not a NATO matter and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said this weekend he expected the United States, which has some 170,000 troops in Iraq, to take “swift” steps against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels.
Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels and the Amsterdam bureau