By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 10, 2008 - The war on terror in Afghanistan is Europe's war, too, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. During a speech at the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy, Gates spoke directly to Europeans about the dangers al Qaeda and other jihadist groups pose to them.
"The threat posed by violent Islamic extremism is real, and it is not going away," Gates said.
Gates said that while European government leaders understand the threats, public support in Europe for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is weak because many people on the continent don't connect the mission with their own safety.
"Many Europeans question the relevance of our actions and doubt whether the mission is worth the lives of their sons and daughters," he said today. "As a result, many want to remove their troops."
All 26 NATO countries have forces in Afghanistan, and forces from 14 non-NATO countries serve under NATO command in the 43,250-member International Security Assistance Force, including about 13,000 Americans.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States galvanized Americans, and U.S. citizens realized that events half a world away could pose dangers to them, Gates said. Though Europeans have not experienced an attack of similar scope, he added, that doesn't mean the extremists aren't trying.
Europeans have been and are targets of this hateful ideology, the secretary said.
"You know all too well about the attacks in Madrid and London," he said. "But there have also been multiple smaller attacks in Istanbul, Amsterdam, Paris, and Glasgow, among others. Numerous cells and plots have been disrupted in recent years as well – many of them seeking large-scale death and destruction."
Islamic extremists planned to down airliners over the Atlantic that could have killed hundreds or even thousands of people. Other extremists planned to release cyanide in the London Underground, and another group planned a chemical attack in the Paris Metro. Terrorists planned to explode car bombs in Belgium, England and Germany.
"Just in the last few weeks, Spanish authorities arrested 14 Islamic extremists in Barcelona suspected of planning suicide attacks against public transport systems in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Britain," the secretary said.
Law enforcement personnel foiled these attacks, but Gates asked people to imagine if some had been successful.
"Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York," he said. "Imagine if they had laid their hands on weapons and materials with even greater destructive capability – weapons of the sort all too easily accessible in the world today. We forget at our peril that the ambition of Islamic extremists is limited only by opportunity."
These groups take their lessons, inspiration and sometimes funding from al Qaeda and like groups in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, Gates noted.
"Many who have been arrested have had direct connections to al Qaeda," he said. "Some have met with top leaders or attended training camps abroad. Some are connected to al Qaeda in Iraq. In the most recent case, the Barcelona cell appears to have ties to a terrorist training network run by Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistan-based extremist commander affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda – who we believe was responsible for the assassination of (former Pakistani Prime Minister) Benazir Bhutto."
Islamic extremists have built their momentum on an illusion of success, Gates said. "The only thing they have accomplished recently is the death of thousands of innocent Muslims while trying to create discord across the Middle East," he said. "So far they have failed. But they have twisted this reality into an aura of success in many parts of the world."
Europeans have to ask themselves what would happen if these terror groups had a real success by winning in Afghanistan or Iraq or toppling Pakistan's government, Gates said.
"Aside from the chaos that would instantly be sown in the region, success there would beget success on many other fronts as the cancer metastasized further and more rapidly than it already has," the secretary said. "Many more followers could join their ranks, both in the region and in susceptible populations across the globe."
Gates insisted he is neither exaggerating the threat nor saying the terrorists are invincible.
"The task before us is to fracture and destroy this movement in its infancy – to permanently reduce its ability to strike globally and catastrophically, while deflating its ideology," he said. "Our best opportunity as an alliance to do this is in Afghanistan.
"Just as the hollowness of Communism was laid bare with the collapse of the Soviet Union," he continued, "so too would success in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, strike a decisive blow against what some commentators have called 'al Qaedaism.'"
People who believe in freedom must stand together against terror, he said. "If we are willing to stand together, we can prevail," said the secretary asserted. "It will not be quick, and it will not be easy – but it can be done."
How NATO faces the challenge in Afghanistan will profoundly influence enemies in the future, Gates said. "Other actors in the global arena – Hezbollah, Iran and others – are watching what we say and what we do, and making choices about their future course," he said.
The secretary said that the threats transcend political party in America and Europe.
"The threats we face now and in the future are real," he said. "They will not go away. Overcoming them will require unity between opposition parties and across various governments, and uncommon purpose within the alliance and with other friends and partners."