In Brussels, Gates Pushes Afghan Plan
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, let's talk about Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, where a presidential election is also coming up, but there's the more immediate issue of a war, which the United Sates is trying to find a way to win. American Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Brussels today, trying to sell U.S. allies on his plans for the war in Afghanistan. These are the NATO allies who have taken a major role in the war. The Pentagon is sending in 20,000 new troops and a team of new generals, although Secretary Gates denies the United States is taking over the war effort.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is traveling with the secretary. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why would Gates be denying that the United States is in control of the situation in Afghanistan?
KELLY: Well, his role, of course, is to reassure the allies that this is broad alliance. There's a role for everybody. And, of course, the truth is that the U.S. can't win this on its own in Afghanistan. That said, the reality is the U.S. has more troops in Afghanistan than the rest of NATO combined, and clearly, with more troops comes more influence. So one of the things we've been hearing Gates lobbying for in meetings over these past couple days is this new command structure that Washington wants, which would add an American general in Afghanistan to run the day-to-day operations, to run the tactical battle.
And that would free up the new four-star commander - who is, of course, also an American - to think about the big picture and guide the overall strategy. And we're told that he's getting pretty good buy in, that so far the allies appear to be on board with that here.
INSKEEP: Although, of course, you might say that in a cynical way. The allies are perfectly happy to have the Americans take this war off their hands because some of them are backing out.
KELLY: Some of them are. The Netherlands and Canada, most notably, have already announced that over the next couple of years, they will be pulling forces out of Afghanistan. We asked Secretary Gates here, are you trying to change their mind? And he said, no. It's a decision that's been made. It's a done deal.
Instead, you know, he's pointing out some countries are adding forces. Australia is building up. And we heard the announcement this week that Estonia is going to be adding a few more troops. There are still, of course, not going to be a lot of Estonians in Afghanistan, but that trend at least is going in the right direction from the U.S. point of view.
You know, the other point I would make - and Secretary Gates, none of the U.S. officials here are going to come right out and say this. But, in a way, if the U.S. is increasing troops and other countries are pulling out, it simplifies things, because it leaves no ambiguity about who's calling the shots on the battlefield. And that's been an issue. There have been so many countries involved in the effort, so many generals running around Afghanistan that it has, I think, proven frustrating to Pentagon planners. They just can't come up with a plan and execute it. They have to sell it to so many allies.
So I think there is some hope that that's changing. They're sending in these new American generals. They're sending in more troops, and particularly in the south, where a lot of the action is.
INSKEEP: And you mentioned these generals. I understand one of them is making an appearance in Brussels today.
KELLY: Making an appearance today, and that's the new top general, Stanley McCrystal, just earned his fourth star, was just confirmed by the Senate this week. And he's on his way now to Afghanistan to take over there, but he's stopping here first. He's going to shake some hands and meet some folks at NATO, I think in an effort to cement the personal relationships that he'll need to call on once he is in place in Kabul.
INSKEEP: One other thing, since you're hearing, of course, from NATO officials from other countries as well there: How are they trying to mesh the idea that they say they support the war with the notion that they're pulling out troops -or some nations, anyway, are pulling out troops?
KELLY: Yeah. And I think that sounds contradictory to American ears. The sense here, and what you hear from officials is that they are pulling their weight. But at the end of the day, they do not have either the resources or the appetite that the Americans do for this fight.
I mean, I will tell you, we've been sitting in packed briefing rooms here at NATO headquarters. And while Afghanistan is high on the agenda, it is far from the only item. The big topic here yesterday, for example, at NATO talks, was Kosovo and how quickly to draw down the NATO peacekeeping force that is still there. So a good reminder, I think, for Americans who are pushing the allies to always do more.
Certainly the Afghan war is seen as important here in Europe. Certainly it's a critical military mission for NATO, but it is not the only one.
INSKEEP: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is traveling with Defense Secretary Gates in Europe. Mary Louise, thanks very much.
KELLY: You're welcome, Steve.
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