US warns failure in Afghanistan is a threat to Europe

MUNICH, Germany (AFP) — US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has warned that the failure of the international force in Afghanistan would increase the security threat to Europe.

Gates also renewed criticism of some European allies, telling the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy that disputes within NATO over troops in Afghanistan risked turning it into a “two tier” alliance of some countries ready to fight and others refusing.

“Instability and conflict abroad have the potential to spread and strike directly at the hearts of our nations,” he told the conference Sunday.

“But I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security,” he told the forum, where ministers and top officials from around the world also discussed Kosovo’s looming independence and Russia’s relations with the West.

“For the United States, September 11 was a galvanizing event — one that opened the American public’s eyes to dangers from distant lands.”

Afghanistan’s Taliban militia, who had provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network, were ousted from power in 2001 by a US-led invasion after the suicide plane attacks on the United States.

But international forces and the Afghan army have been confronted by a renewed Taliban insurgency, notably in the south of the country where the international force has seen heavy fighting.

Gates warned that success for the Taliban would be a huge morale boost for Islamic extremism worldwide, and said a reticent European public should remember this.

“The threat posed by violent Islamic extremism is real — and it is not going away,” he said.

Europeans knew “all too well” about the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people in March 2004 and the attacks in London that left 56 dead in July 2005, he said, but further from the spotlight there had been “multiple smaller attacks” in cities from Glasgow to Istanbul.

“Numerous cells and plots have been disrupted in recent years as well — many of them seeking large-scale death and destruction.”

Gates said loosely organised international Islamic extremism was “built on the illusion of success.”

“After all, about the only thing they have accomplished recently is the death of thousands of innocent Muslims while trying to create discord across the Middle East. So far they have failed.

“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?”

The task confronting the US and Europe is to fracture and destroy Islamic extremism and deflate its ideology, and the best opportunity to do that is in Afghanistan, he said.

Gates pressed his message earlier this week at a NATO defence ministers meeting in Lithuania, where he urged European allies to send combat troops to southern Afghanistan.

The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, led by NATO, has grown from 16,000 to 43,000 troops over the past two years, but commanders have called for more soldiers particularly in the south.

“We are not losing. We are just not winning fast enough,” NATO supreme commander, General Bantz Craddock, said on the sidelines of the conference, calling for an extra 1,500-3,000 troops.

With the public in many European countries increasingly against deployments in combat zones, many governments have refused to send troops to Afghanistan’s frontline in the south.

“We must not — we cannot — become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” warned Gates.

Other risks from around the world were also highlighted at the two-day Munich conference.

Kosovo’s looming unilateral declaration of independence, which is expected in days and has been backed by the European Union and the United States, would “open a Pandora’s box” in Europe, Russia’s First deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov warned.

“We want to stay in the international law framework and we don’t want to create a precedent” that could destabilise Europe, Ivanov told the conference, warning that the European Union might also have to recognise the self-proclaimed Turkish republic of northern Cyprus.

Talking about Russia’s increasingly tense relations with Europe and the United States, Ivanov said his country did not want confrontation but it wants “to occupy an appropriate place in world politics and commitment to maintain our national interests.”

Later Sunday, Gates arrived in Baghdad on an announced Iraq visit.

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