Gates, U.K. Officials Discuss Iraq Troop Increase

Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with British leaders on Sunday to discuss U.S. plans to increase troop levels in Iraq. The new U.S approach comes as Britain plans to withdraw some of its 7,000 troops.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The president's new defense secretary is explaining the Iraq strategy in Europe today. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stopped in London, then in Brussels, Belgium, which is where we found NPR's Guy Raz.

And Guy, did the president and his staff over the last several days persuade Europeans to take a second look at what he's doing in Iraq?

GUY RAZ: I'm not really sure he has and I'm not really sure that the president's senior advisers are expecting much success out of pitching this new plan. What's interesting is that there are sort of two high-level public officials now making this pitch in Europe and the Middle East. Of course, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East. Robert Gates in his case, his visits here in Europe have a lot more to do with just repairing the personal relationship between the Pentagon and the European allies.

I mean obviously his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, didn't have particularly warm relations with many of the European allies, but there's also a very specific aspect to his visit here in Brussels at the NATO Headquarters. As you know, Steve, NATO actually runs the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, and the problem that some of these NATO member states are facing in their home countries is that the public in these countries is becoming increasingly opposed to the presence of their soldiers in Afghanistan because in a sense they kind of associate it with the U.S. mission in Iraq.

So Gates is looking for reassurance from some of these allies that they're committed to the Afghan mission.

INSKEEP: Gates is actually traveling to Afghanistan next?

RAZ: He is. In the coming days he's going to visit military commanders there, you know, really to get a better sense of the situation there. He hasn't been to Afghanistan since becoming the defense secretary. And then, specifically, we learned from a senior Pentagon official yesterday that there are very strong, credible intelligence reports that the military - U.S. military in Afghanistan - is expecting a pretty strong spring offensive launched by the Taliban once the snow of course melts.

So the question Gates is going to be asking his commanders in Afghanistan is that if they have enough equipment and manpower to handle that expected offensive.

INSKEEP: So European countries are increasingly skeptical about Afghanistan, the war they supported and were willing to send troops for. Which brings us back to Iraq, the war that they're especially skeptical of. Guy, I understand you were just in London with Gates, and this is a place where British officials who've been so supportive of the Iraq mission compared to other countries gave very faint praise it seemed last week to President Bush's new strategy.

RAZ: Yeah, absolutely. And what was interesting last night was that when Gates met with his counterpart in Britain, Desmond Brown, the minister of defense, they didn't take any questions. And one of the reasons why is because Brown has been inundated with questions from the media about whether Britain is going to draw down its troops in Iraq this year.

Well, we found out today that in fact the British will begin a major draw down of their troops in Iraq by the end of this year, as many as 2,000 to 3,000. And there are about 7,000 British troops, mainly in the south. So essentially, Gates trying to find out the details of this plan and what that could ultimately mean for the overall mission in Iraq.

INSKEEP: So they're cutting their forces at the same time that the U.S. is trying to increase the number of forces in the country.

RAZ: Yeah, and Gates really went to pains to explain that there are differences between the U.S. mission and the U.K. mission. The British soldiers are in the south. It's not as volatile as the center of the country. And so essentially from the British perspective it's time to begin moving out. And of course Tony Blair is expected to pass the mantle this year, and that is when the British public is expecting the draw down to begin.

INSKEEP: Guy, thanks very much.

RAZ: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Guy Raz traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

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