Gates warns allies of militant threat

Times Staff Writer

For weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been passing an empty hat among European allies, looking for more troops to bail out the struggling NATO mission in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, he laid out his cards, offering a stark assessment of the problems U.S. and allied forces face -- and a dark prediction of what would happen if Afghanistan's "cancer" was allowed to spill into the rest of the world.

Gates told delegates at an international security conference here that European nations must, for their own safety, step up their battle against Islamic militants on the other side of the globe.

"I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security," he said, citing at least 10 recent alleged terrorist plots in Europe -- many with connections reaching back to South Asia.

"Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York," he said. "Imagine if they had laid their hands on weapons and materials with even greater destructive capability. . . . We forget at our peril that the ambition of Islamic extremists is limited only by opportunity."

Gates warned that the danger would rapidly multiply with the fall of a moderate government in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East.

"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," he said. "The task before us is to fracture and destroy this movement in its infancy. . . . Our best opportunity as an alliance to do this is in Afghanistan."

The U.S. campaign to raise troop levels from other North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations has run up against citizenries largely hostile to the war, restrictions from some countries on what their troops are allowed to do, and disagreements over whether military contingents should be focused on fighting the Taliban or development work, such as rebuilding schools and utilities.

Germany has agreed under pressure from the U.S. to send in July about 200 paratroopers and armored infantrymen as a quick-reaction force to relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan to supplement 3,300 German troops already there.

But the German Parliament has rejected a U.S. plea to send forces to the south to help fight the Taliban. German officials say that would jeopardize the positive work they have done in the north to train Afghan security forces and promote economic and social development.

"We have got the people on our side," German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said. "I'm absolutely convinced that it would be an error, if we have 4,000 [troops] in the north, where we have 30,000 of the population, if we were to transfer to another area in the south, where we have 20,000 in population . . . and 27,000 troops."

But Canada, which has lost nearly 80 soldiers in fighting near the southern city of Kandahar, has said it would maintain its 2,500-troop deployment only if other nations send 1,000 additional troops to the south.

Gates, who flew on to Iraq to consult with U.S. military leaders there, emphasized that he was not singling out Germany, which already has the third-largest troop contingent in Afghanistan. But he said, "Some allies ought not to have the luxury of opting only for stability and civilian operations, thus forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying."

France, which has about 1,300 troops in Afghanistan, has signaled that it is considering sending more. French Defense Minister Herve Morin called on the European Union to take a more proactive role in global security as a "complement" to NATO.

"Europe cannot content itself with being the civilian agency of NATO," he said.

The other issue to dominate the conference, the Serbian province of Kosovo's intended declaration of independence next week, also drew a lot of talk and few conclusions.

Left unanswered was one major question: how Moscow, Serbia's chief ally, would respond. But Sergei B. Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister, warned that such a unilateral declaration by Kosovo without the involvement of the United Nations and agreement with Serbia would "open a Pandora's box."

He said Russia had no intention of retaliating by recognizing the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in neighboring Georgia, as some analysts have suggested it might. But he hinted nonetheless of the political troubles that could lie ahead.

"This problem will cause a domino reaction in the whole region," he said, noting that other disputed regions, such as the portion of Cyprus claimed by Turkish Cypriots, might seek similar treatment.

"Let's be logical about this: If NATO and the EU countries recognize Kosovo's independence, they will have to recognize north Cyprus."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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