WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that sending Marines to Afghanistan will keep pressure on the Taliban and doesn't "reflect dissatisfaction" with NATO countries' performance.
Gates was trying to smooth over comments a day earlier that sparked an international furor. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the defense secretary said US forces in eastern Afghanistan are doing a terrific job but that he is concerned that NATO allies are not well trained in counterinsurgency operations.
"Allied forces . . . have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference, which officials said had been rescheduled for earlier in the day to meet European news deadlines.
"They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most grueling conditions imaginable," Gates said of NATO forces. "As a result of the valor and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban has suffered significant losses."
But Gates also repeated his concern that NATO forces were better trained for Cold War-era fighting than they are for today's threats, such as insurgencies.
Gates said he had personally phoned his Canadian counterpart Wednesday to explain his position.
In Toronto, Defense Minister Peter MacKay described the call. "I spoke to him and he said, 'Canada was the last country I would make those comments about,' and they were not meant to be disparaging or to diminish the effort Canada has put forward," MacKay said.
Yesterday Gates called the Dutch minister of defense "to clear up the misunderstanding caused by the article and express regret for the difficulties it has caused," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. During his briefing Gates noted that the Dutch parliament had just voted to extend its troop commitment to Afghanistan for another two years.
Other officials and specialists have quietly acknowledged that NATO nations don't have the capabilities needed to fight an insurgency.