MUNICH, Germany — NATO's survival is at stake in the debate over how the United States and Europe should share the burden of fighting Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
"We must not _ we cannot _ become a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not," Gates told the Munich Conference on Security Policy, where Afghanistan was a central topic.
"Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance," he added.
Washington has had innumerable disputes with its NATO allies in the 59 years since the security alliance was founded as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union. But Gates portrayed today's debate over the importance of the mission in Afghanistan and how to accomplish as among the most difficult ever.
A central theme of Gates' speech was his assertion that al-Qaida extremists, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, pose a greater threat to Europe than many Europeans realize.
The Pentagon chief later took questions from his audience, which included dozens of top government officials, mainly from Europe and the U.S., as well as military officers, private security specialists, members of Congress and European parliamentarians.
A member of the Russian parliament, leading off the questioning, accused the U.S. of having created today's al-Qaida threat through American support in the 1980s for the mujahedeen resistance to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Gates disputed that assertion, but said he did regret that the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
"The threat from al-Qaida began with the Soviet invasion of a sovereign state in December 1979, a state that up to that point had not represented a threat to anybody in the world, except to a certain extent its own people because of its weakness and poverty," Gates said.
Also addressing the conference was Sergei Ivanov, the former Russian defense minister who is now a deputy prime minister. He advocated joining forces to fight international terrorism, but suggested the U.S. has motives that are out of step with those of Russia and other countries.
"Some states strive to exploit anti-terrorist activities as a pretext to achieving their own geopolitical and economic goals," Ivanov said, apparently referring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In his speech, Gates praised NATO allies for their contributions in Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement ruled in Kabul and provided a haven for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network until U.S. forces invaded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he said pointedly that more effort is needed and the alliance must find a way to win the fight against a resurgent Taliban.
"In NATO, some allies ought not have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying," Gates said.
He named no individual countries; U.S. officials have been pressing Germany to do more.
NATO, through its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is in charge of the military mission in Afghanistan. The top commander is an American, Army Gen. Daniel McNeill, and the U.S. is the biggest provider of troops. Of the 42,000 total ISAF troops, about 14,000 are American. The U.S. has an additional 13,000 separately hunting terrorists and training Afghan forces.
U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the NATO supreme commander, said in an interview shortly before Gates' appearance that the troops in Afghanistan would be making more progress if they had the resources they were promised more than a year ago. He said they are short at least three maneuver battalions, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools to track movements on the ground.
Referring to a "paucity of troops," Craddock said the commanders in Afghanistan are like the coach of an 11-player soccer team that is competing with two players short. He said the effect is that the commanders are unable to attack and defend as aggressively as they would like.
"Give us the resources," Craddock said in the interview with U.S. reporters traveling with Gates.
In his speech, Gates said the Bush administration had learned from mistakes made in Iraq, including the need to more closely integrate the civilian-led stabilization efforts with the military efforts. He said the U.S. and NATO must apply that lesson in Afghanistan to assure success.
Gates is hoping to persuade Europeans that they have a big stake in the outcome in Afghanistan.
"I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security," posed by radical elements in Afghanistan, he said.
The defense secretary, who was a career CIA officer before retiring in 1993, said his remarks on Afghanistan were meant to reach "directly to the people of Europe" in a bid to persuade them on the war's importance.
"The threat posed by violent Islamic extremism is real _ and it is not going to go away," he said, adding that Europe has seen a string of terrorist attacks _ in London, Madrid, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Paris and Glasgow, Scotland. He ticked off a list of plots that were disrupted before they could be carried out, including a plan to use ricin and release cyanide in the London Underground and a planned chemical attack in Paris.
"It raises the question: What would happen if the false success they proclaim became real success? If they triumphed in Iraq or Afghanistan, or managed to topple the government of Pakistan? Or a major Middle Eastern government?
"Aside from the chaos that would instantly be sown in the region, success there would beget success on many other fronts as the cancer metastasized further and more rapidly than it already has," Gate said.