Survival of the NATO alliance, a cornerstone of American security policy for decades, 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 it was founded as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union. But today's debate over the importance of the mission in Afghanistan and how to accomplish it was portrayed by Gates as among the most difficult ever.
In Gates' audience were dozens of top government officials, mainly from Europe and the United States, as well as military officers, private security specialists, members of Congress and European parliamentarians.
Gates praised NATO allies for their contributions in Afghanistan, where the Taliban movement ruled in Kabul until U.S. forces invaded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 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, but U.S. officials have been pressing Germany to do more.
NATO, through its International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, is in charge of the military mission in Afghanistan, although the top commander is an American, Army Gen. Daniel McNeill, and the United States is the biggest provider of troops.
Of the 42,000 total ISAF troops, about 14,000 are American. The United States has another 13,000 separately hunting terrorists and training Afghan forces.