OHRID, Macedonia - Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday urged southeastern European leaders to shift their military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan, where their forces are more urgently needed.
Speaking at a meeting here of the Southeast European Defense Ministerial, Gates said that as the security situation in Iraq continues to improve, countries should considered filling the "urgent need" for trainers in Afghanistan.
"Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, it will also reinforce your important role in insuring peace and stability around the globe," Gates said during a press conference with the Macedonian minister of defense.
Combined, the 11 members of SEDM (not counting the United States) have nearly 5,100 troops already in Afghanistan. Just one of the member nations, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has no troops there.
In Iraq, all coalition forces combined, other than the U.S., contribute about 6,900 forces. Six of those countries are members of SEDM, and two others participate in the SEDM meetings but are not members. U.S. officials declined to say how many troops each country has in Iraq.
The sales pitch resonated with the Macedonians. Philip T. Reeker, U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, said the small country — which has 77 troops in Iraq and 136 troops in Afghanistan — has "indicated an openness" to the idea. He said that as their Iraq deployment comes to an end they are looking at sending additional forces to Afghanistan.
The U.S. has made it clear that it will gradually shift more troops to Afghanistan, as force levels in Iraq go down in the coming months. Commanders in Afghanistan have said they need as many as 10,000 more forces, in addition to the contingent of Marines and the Army brigade that have already been order to go later this year and early next year.
In other developments Wednesday, Gates and his Ukrainian counterpart acknowledged that there is much work to do to overcome the political unrest in Ukraine and its limited public support for the nation's NATO membership hopes.
Gates said the struggles do not diminish U.S. support for Ukraine's efforts to join the international coalition. But as he spoke, Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko appeared closer to calling early parliamentary elections in a bitter political standoff with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that threatens to further destabilize the country.
"It is a time of political transition in Ukraine and I assured the minister that we stand ready to work with whatever new coalition may appear," Gates told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. He added, "We all have to deal with political realities, but our position (in support of Ukraine) in principle remains unchanged."
Speaking through an interpreter, Yekhanurov acknowledged that while about 31 percent of the public voices support for the country's move to join NATO, a poll showed that a similar number disapprove, and 40 percent are undecided.
"We have to work a lot to address this issue," he said.
If a new parliamentary vote is called, it would be the third parliamentary election in as many years and observers fear it would further destabilize this politically turbulent nation.
Gates and Yekhanurov are in Macedonia for a meeting of the Southeastern Europe defense ministers. The sessions Wednesday, followed by a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Hungary later this week, reflect the escalating tensions in the region between Russia and increasingly westward-looking Eastern European nations like Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia has bitterly opposed the prospect of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, which once were republics of the Soviet Union. And some NATO allies worry that not showing strong support for the two countries could be seen as bowing to pressure from Moscow.
The conferences also follow closely on the heels of Russia's invasion of Georgia in August, a move that enraged the U.S. and European allies, and further eroded U.S. relations with Moscow.