U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday asked defense ministers from southeastern Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan, a message that he is likely to forcefully echo at a NATO summit this week.
“As the situation on the ground in Iraq continues to improve, I urge you to consider sending your military forces to Afghanistan, where there is an urgent need for trainers as they expand their army,” Gates said at a meeting of the South-Eastern Europe Defense Ministerial, a 12-member organization composed of NATO members and countries such as Macedonia that want to join the military alliance. “Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, but will also reinforce your important role in ensuring peace and stability around the globe.”
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said he needs three more brigades — 10,000 to 12,000 more troops — to confront a resurgent Taliban and a general deterioration in the security situation. The U.S. currently has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, with 22,000 of them part of a NATO force of 48,000 soldiers. The rest of the U.S. contingent operates under its own military command.
There are more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan from the countries attending the meeting here, including NATO members such as Italy. The meeting's host, Macedonia, has 136 troops in Afghanistan, including a medical team. The country also has a special-forces platoon and an infantry platoon in Iraq, and a U.S. diplomat said Macedonia is considering shifting those forces to Afghanistan.
“The Macedonians have indicated an openness as their Iraq deployment comes to an end to look at augmenting the forces already in Afghanistan,” said Philip Reeker, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia.
Gates reiterated U.S. support for Macedonia's membership in NATO, which stalled because of a dispute with Greece over the country's name, the Republic of Macedonia. Greece, a veto-holding member, says the name Macedonia belongs to a Greek province, and calls its neighbor the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Greek officials have said Macedonia's use of its name implies territorial ambitions, a charge denied by the Macedonians.
“The United States strongly supports Macedonia's aspiration to become a full member of NATO,” Gates said after a bilateral meeting with the nation's president, prime minister and defense minister. “Like many of you, we too were disappointed last April when Macedonia was not invited to join the alliance at the Bucharest summit. We encourage Macedonia and Greece to find an immediate solution to the name issue, which is in the best interests of both parties and the region.”
U.S. officials said they'd like the issue resolved before a NATO summit in December, when enlarging the alliance will be considered.