NATO unity at risk over Afghanistan: Gates

The U.S. secretary of defence has made a direct appeal to Europeans to support the war in Afghanistan, saying NATO's existence is at stake.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates appeared to make a direct appeal to Europe on Sunday to support the war in Afghanistan, saying NATO's existence is at stake.

"We must not, we cannot, become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not," he told a gathering of security and military experts in Munich, Germany.

"Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance."

He urged European governments to make the case to their citizens that the war in Afghanistan is necessary to defeat Islamic extremism.

"Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York," he said.

"For the United States, the lessons we have learned these past six years, and in many cases relearned, have not been easy ones.

"With safe havens in the Middle East, and new tactics honed on the battlefield and transmitted via the internet, violence and terrorism worldwide could surge," he said.

Gates also repeated his criticism of countries that are unwilling to provide troops for combat roles Afghanistan.

"Some allies ought not have the luxury of opting only for stability in civilian operations, forcing other allies to bear a disproportionate share of the fighting and the dying," Gates said.

"As opinion leaders and government officials, we are the ones who must make the case publicly and persistently. The threat posed by violent Islamic extremism is real and it is not going to go away."

Canada has 2,500 troops stationed in the Kandahar area and has called for another 1,000 troops from NATO allies to help bolster its efforts in southern Afghanistan.

Resisting pressure

Faced with widespread public opposition, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey have resisted NATO and U.S. pressure to send more troops to Afghanistan. However, there have been indications that France and Poland may help.

Poland has 1,200 troops fighting mostly in the eastern part of Afghanistan. It recently balked at any troop movement, but announced it will be sending two of its eight military helicopters to help NATO troops in the volatile south.

With about 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, France's undetermined number of troops already planned for deployment to Kabul might be moved south, French Defence Minister Herve Morin said last week.

Some reports have suggested the NATO ally will move 700 troops to work alongside the Canadians in Kandahar.

Canadian, American, British and Dutch troops are deployed in the violent southern region, while countries like Germany, France and Italy are under self-imposed restrictions that keep them out of combat operations and in more stable provinces.