ROBERT Gates, America's Secretary for Defence, is a straight-talking, vastly-experienced public servant, as different as it possible to imagine from his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld. He is clearly concerned about the lack of progress being made by Nato forces in Afghanistan and in the past week he has spoken of a cloud forming over the future of the alliance because of the reluctance of several Nato members to increase their presence in Afghanistan. He has publicly expressed disappointment with the German government and in an uncharacteristic outburst he criticised the training of the British troops serving in Afghanistan. Yesterday, after a week of frustrating meetings in Europe, Mr Gates showed his good sense by acknowledging that America's role in Iraq has led many European governments to be sceptical about becoming too involved in Afghanistan. In an unusually candid recognition for a member of President Bush's Cabinet he said that the Iraq war has exacted a direct and significant political cost among Washington's closest allies. He believes, however, that Iraq and Afghanistan are different in that failure to eradicate the Taliban and build a stable Afghanistan will leave open a terrorist threat to Europe as well as to the United States.

He intends to put this point strongly in a keynote speech he is giving today in Munich and to reinforce it as other opportunities arise to make the case. Mr Gates has clearly grasped that the public opinion in Europe does not distinguish between Iraq and Afghanistan and that this affects the freedom of European governments to act as he would like them to do.