U.S. critique of Afghan allies wasn't aimed at Canada: MacKay

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates wasn't talking about Canada when he criticized the work of allied troops in southern Afghanistan, Defence Minister Peter MacKay says.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates wasn't talking about Canada when he verbally attacked the skills of the allied troops working in southern Afghanistan, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates told the Los Angeles Times that he's worried about the training of soldiers serving in southern Afghanistan. ((Kevin Wolf/Associated Press))

MacKay said Gates called him Wednesday to explain that the comments he made in the Los Angeles Times were meant to be a general reflection on NATO's shortfalls when it comes to battling insurgents.

"His comments were certainly not directed at Canada,'" MacKay told reporters in Ottawa, recounting the conversation he'd had with Gates five minutes earlier.

"He said, 'I specifically made no reference to any country and Canada is the last country I'd make those comments about.'"

Gates's interview with the Times was published Wednesday. In the article, Gates says NATO forces in southern Afghanistan do not know how to properly combat a guerilla insurgency and that could be contributing to rising violence in the country.

The article notes that NATO troops working in the south are primarily from Canada, Britain and the Netherlands.

"I'm worried we're deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations," Gates says in the Times article.

"Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counter-insurgency," he adds.

The article notes that other senior U.S. military officials have criticized NATO for an overreliance on heavy weaponry in the south, including air strikes.

'I was a bit taken aback'

MacKay said he was surprised when he read the article Wednesday, especially since he had spoken to Gates on the telephone only the day before and Gates had only talked about "respect, admiration and appreciation" for Canada, according to MacKay.

"I'll admit I was a bit taken aback when I saw it," MacKay said of the article.

He said Gates was quick to call Wednesday to explain himself.

"He was extremely complimentary in what he said about Canadian forces and in fact expressed regret and embarrassment over those comments being in any way reflected towards our troops," MacKay said.

"He said, 'This was not a criticism aimed at you or anyone else, this is a general comment about how we need collectively, in the alliance, need to train our troops to deal with counter-insurgency, counterterrorism,'" MacKay added.

"I take him at his word."

MacKay noted that Canada and the rest of NATO should be thinking about how to improve their training and equipment in order to better cope with insurgent attacks, which are increasingly becoming a part of modern warfare.

Brits, Dutch lash out at Gates

Canada's Liberals were not as understanding on Wednesday. Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre said the comments were insensitive, especially given that a Canadian soldier was killed Tuesday in Afghanistan.

"We are paying the price in lives," Coderre said. "Our men and women know how to fight. We need to know who he was talking about, what countries."

Parliamentarians in Britain and the Netherlands also lashed out at Gates's remarks. British Conservative legislator Patrick Mercer called the comments "bloody outrageous."

"I would beg the Americans to understand that we are their closest allies, and our men are bleeding and dying in large numbers," Mercer said. "These sorts of things are just not helpful among allied nations."

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer defended his troops.

"All countries that are in the south do an excellent job. Full stop," he said.

Gates did not address the criticism directly on Wednesday, but his spokesman, Geoff Morrell, fielded questions. Morell said he did not challenge the accuracy of the quotes in the Times article, but thought they left the wrong impression.

"For the record, [Gates] did not — to the L.A. Times or at any time otherwise — publicly ever criticize any single country for their performance in, or commitment to, the mission in Afghanistan," Morrell said in Washington, D.C.

Instead, Morrell said, Gates was only pointing out that "NATO, as an alliance, does not train for counter-insurgency. The alliance has never had to do it before."

With files from the Associated Press and the Canadian Press