Gates smooths over remarks critical of NATO allies

( dpa ) - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he was not singling out any countries when he criticized NATO for lagging in counterinsurgency expertise, saying his remarks were addressing the entire alliance, including the United States.

"We have gone out to people to try and clarify that I wasn't talking about any particular allies, but that the alliance as a whole ... has not refocused in terms of its overall program in terms of counterinsurgency," Gates told reporters in the Pentagon.

Gates, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Wednesday, said NATO's experience in Afghanistan has highlighted shortcomings in training and skills when it comes to fighting against an insurgency.

"I'm worried that we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," Gates told the newspaper.

"Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency. They were trained for the Fulda Gap," he said of the German region where the west anticipated a Soviet invasion would take place during the Cold War.

Gates' remarks were viewed as a jab at British, Dutch, Canadian and Danish troops fighting alongside the Americans in southern Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The criticism sparked anger in some European capitals and prompted the Dutch defence minister, Eimert van Middelkoop, to summon the US ambassador to the Netherlands, Roland Arnall, to a meeting to clarify the remarks.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer came to the defence of NATO forces.

"Counter insurgency is a very complex thing and not always easy," Scheffer said. "I have great respect for what they are doing and I have specifically great respect for what the nations in the south are doing."

Gates told reporters that his comments were meant to raise the need for NATO to improve counterinsurgency warfare and pointed out the US forces have at times also fallen short in their capability to handle insurgencies.

"The United States has had to basically relearn counterinsurgency and as a government, including the civil side, we still have some deficiencies in that respect," Gates said.

Gates praised allies to for their help in fighting the Taliban.

"Allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan," he said.

"As a result of the valor and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses and no longer holds real estate of any consequence," he said.

The United States has been frustrated, however, by the rules some allies, like France and Germany, have placed on their troops in Afghanistan limiting them to peacekeeping roles in relatively safe areas of the country. The United States has also lobbied allies to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Gates this week ordered 3,200 Marines to Iraq in March and April ahead of an expected spring offensive by the Taliban. NATO and US commanders have requested and additional 7,500 soldiers.

Gates said the Marines were being deployed to help meet the gap and not because he was unsatisfied with the capability of the NATO forces already there.

"This deployment of Marines does not reflect dissatisfaction about the military performance in Afghanistan of allied forces from other nations," Gates said.

There are already 26,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan, about half of them under NATO command. There are about 54,000 allied troops in the country in total.

Gates said he will press NATO allies to provide more troops to account for the temporary Marine deployment that will conclude at the end of 2008.

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