Gates Worries About NATO Resolve

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Afghanistan, giving a cautiously optimistic assessment of the battle against resurgent Taliban forces. But he worries about the failure of NATO allies to provide needed troops.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan tonight. He has a cautiously optimistic assessment of the battle against resurgent Taliban forces there. Mister Gates told reporters: He thinks things are slowly headed in the right direction, but he said he's concerned about sustaining that movement.

NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz is traveling with the secretary and joins us from Kabul. Guy, at the end of last year, we heard reports of a spike in Taliban attacks - suicide bombings, full-out battles between Taliban fighters and NATO forces. Why does Secretary Gates say things are now moving in the right direction?

GUY RAZ: Well, it sounds somewhat confusing, doesn't it? Based on his somewhat sunny assessment, but, you know, he's very circumspect and cautious. And basically, he's comparing it to his last trip here in January. And during that trip, there was a widespread expectation that the Taliban were planning to launch a wide-scale spring offensive. Well, that never materialized and now U.S. and NATO officials are basically saying it's due in part to counter-offensive measures taken by NATO and U.S. forces, also very good intelligence.

All that being said, violence is still up in Afghanistan. If you compare it to the past several years, there's been an increase in suicide bombings, in improvised explosive device bombings, IEDs as they're known. In fact, in the past few days, NATO reported that they found what's known as an EFP. This is a very powerful roadside bomb that's used in parts of Iraq, but never before seen here in Afghanistan.

ELLIOT: Now, despite Mister Gates' optimism, he did express some concern about keeping things on the right track. What are his concerns?

RAZ: Well, his main concern is NATO. And again, Secretary Gates is a fairly circumspect guy unlike his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. So he's trying not to cause any real tension. But effectively, there are about 36,000 NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan, about a third of those are U.S. troops. Now it gets a little confusing here because on top of those U.S. troops under NATO command, there are another 12,000 to 13,000 U.S. troops, which are under U.S. command. So basically, the U.S. is bearing the brunt of the operation here.

And for the past several months, the U.S. has asked NATO to provide about 3,000 more troops and NATO simply hasn't been able to do it for various reasons. And basically, what the secretary of defense said was: Look, there are 2.3 million NATO troops, not including U.S. troops. Why is it that they cannot provide another 3,000 and that's the message that he's going to be bringing during his visit here.

ELLIOT: NPR's Guy Raz in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thank you.

RAZ: Thank you, Debbie.

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