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U.S Allies don't want NATO in Afghanistan


Guest Lottie

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POIANA BRASOV, Romania -- France and Germany spoke out Wednesday against a U.S. proposal to put NATO in charge of the military and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, but U.S. and other officials said the alliance would go ahead and develop options for merging the missions.

The issue featured prominently in a meeting of NATO defense ministers at this ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains. It is expected to resurface when they reconvene in early February in France.

"There may be some interest in synergy between the two operations, but a merger of the forces makes no sense," said French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. "It would be counterproductive to have the two missions under a united command."

The United States, backed by Britain, wants greater integration between the 18,000-strong mission it leads to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters with the 9,000 NATO peacekeepers currently operating in Kabul, the capital, and five northern provinces.

The outcome is important because NATO is on course to expand - numerically and geographically - its involvement in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, even as the United States pursues combat operations. In addition, U.S. forces are working on have reconstruction projects similar to those of NATO.

The evolution of NATO's role in Afghanistan also is important from a political standpoint, given the strong tensions that have divided the United States from some of its longstanding European allies over the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.

France and Germany were among the more vocal critics of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

U.S. officials here spoke confidently of overcoming opposition to the idea of combining the NATO and U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, although they said it was unclear what the solution would look like.

"Most countries that spoke today, including our country, said the goal should be one NATO mission" rather than separate American and NATO missions, said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO.

"There are many ways you could do that," he added. "You could establish two different task forces, one that does combat and one that does peacekeeping. But this remains to be worked out."

American officials gave no indication that their motivation for trying to put NATO in charge in Afghanistan was related to hopes for reducing U.S. troops levels there.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did not comment publicly on the day's talks. He met privately with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Wednesday evening. Rumsfeld was due to return to Washington on Thursday, ending a week-long overseas trip that included a visit to Iraq and a meeting on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf with defense ministers from 18 countries - some NATO members, some not - that support the U.S.-led global war on terrorism.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said combining commands in Afghanistan was an option to be studied, telling a news conference, "The options the military authorities are going to present to ministers in February will certainly also include ... the possibility of a unified command."

German Defense Minister Peter Struck was adamant his government would oppose any fusion.

"There is a clear 'no' of the German government for a merging of the mandates," Struck told reporters. "We'll continue focusing on reconstruction while other nations are engaged in the fight against international terrorism (in Afghanistan)."

Britain's Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon was confident the military could come up with a plan that enable closer ties while respecting Berlin's reservations.

"We have to be sensitive to the national considerations," Hoon said. "I don't see any reason to cross any German red lines."

Struck said he backed the drive to get more NATO troops to expand the peacekeeping mission, but he doubted Germany's parliament would support a change of the German military's mandate to allow the alliance to take on the combat mission.

Germany is one of the largest contributors to the peacekeeping mission, with 2,500 soldiers.

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US pushes Nato over Afghanistan

The US is calling on Nato to take overall responsibility for peacekeeping and reconstruction in Afghanistan.

US officials are proposing the separate US and Nato missions there should merge under Nato command, during talks with defence ministers meeting in Romania.

Nato currently commands 9,000 Kabul-based international troops, while there are 18,000 US troops hunting al-Qaeda and Taleban militants.

Members will also be asked to help equip the new Iraqi security forces.

In a separate development, Nato has announced that its rapid reaction response force is now operational.

Afghan mission

The US ambassador to Nato, Nicholas Burns, confirmed the plans for Afghanistan ahead of Wednesday's talks in the Romanian ski resort of Poiana Brasov.

"Obviously we hope to see, at some point, integration of the Nato effort and Operation Enduring Freedom," he said.

"It could be 2005. It could be 2006. It just depends on how things go.

"It's a very complicated issue, how you put these two very different military missions together."

He said he expected Nato's military leaders to present a plan for taking control of the Afghan mission at a meeting of defence ministers planned for February.

Nato boosted its forces from 6,500 to 9,000 in time for the Afghan elections last weekend, but the alliance has faced US criticism for delays in deploying troops and equipment.

Until now, the merger of forces was seen as a long-term goal and some Nato envoys have expressed surprise at the timing of the US call.

Germany said it would object if it meant changing Nato's mandate in Afghanistan from its current peacekeeping and security duties.

Defence Minister Peter Struck told reporters that he doubted the German parliament would approve such a move.

Iraq trainers

US officials are also keen for Nato to begin implementing a commitment, agreed last week, to send military trainers and equipment to Iraq in an effort to make sure security forces are ready to police elections planned for early 2005.

About 40 Nato trainers have been in Baghdad since August, but US officials have expressed doubts over whether Iraqi forces will be adequately prepared to police January's planned elections, which are expected to be targeted by insurgents.

Nato is not heavily committed in Iraq, but many of the 25 member nations have some troops operating within the US-led coalition.

New force

The announcement that the alliance's rapid reaction force is now up and running was made by Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in his opening address to the meeting.

The aim of the Nato Response Force, which will include warships and fighter planes, is to give the alliance the ability to react to crises around the world within five days.

It has an initial troop strength of some 17,500, and is due to reach full capacity with 24,000 troops by 2006.

"This is an important milestone in our quest for more usable and deployable forces, but more needs to be done to complete our quest," Mr Scheffer said in his opening address to the meeting.

Story from BBC NEWS:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/worl...ope/3738182.stm

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