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NATO: Allies Discuss Refocusing Activities In Bosnia, Afghanistan

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The NATO allies are meeting in Brussels today for wide-ranging discussions on how the alliance can refocus its key activities in areas like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan, and how the relationship should develop between NATO and the fledgling European Union military arm. The alliance is still finding its way to a new role in a post-Cold War world.

Prague, 1 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow for discussions which are expected to concentrate on key challenges facing the alliance.

For NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, who leaves his post at the end of the month, this is one of the last chances to pursue his vision of a viable future for the half-century-old Atlantic alliance.

Robertson, a tough Scotsman, has striven to transform NATO from a Euro-centric grouping of big mechanized armies facing the one-time Soviet threat, to a quick-moving, light-footed force that can respond to the new challenges of decentralized hot spots and global terrorism.

The transition is still incomplete, and it will be up to his successor, Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to bring it to fruition.

Robertson has broken new ground in giving NATO its first-ever out-of-Europe deployment -- in Afghanistan. He is already pressing for discussions next year of a possible NATO deployment in Iraq.

In other words, instead of having NATO rust away like a tank abandoned by the roadside with its cannon pointing at a long-vanished enemy, Robertson is leading the alliance back into center stage. As analyst Mark Joyce of the Royal United Services Institute in London puts it: "It is just the beginning of the process, and the real work remains to be done, and this has really been [Robertson's] message, since he has been doing his farewell tour of Europe, that the allies really now need to match their commitments, to follow up on them with real investment, and real structural changes, and follow it through to capabilities, and these are the real challenges facing his successors."

There is already trouble looming with the Afghan deployment, in that the alliance's power does not stretch far beyond the suburbs of the Afghan capital, Kabul. One of the key topics up for discussion in Brussels will be how to expand the alliance's German-led Afghan peacekeeping mission beyond Kabul.

The alliance has offered to send a force to the northern city of Kunduz, followed by similar missions to up to five other provincial centers. But Robertson has warned the alliance can only keep that pledge if the 19 NATO member nations provide enough support.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday in Brussels, urged greater NATO involvement in taking over tasks from the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan.

"As you know, I've been encouraging international forces to step up and take more responsibility for portions of the Afghan activities," Rumsfeld said. "So I think it's a good thing and my guess is it will happen. What it will take or how long or at what rate I think is yet to be seen."

So far, however the allies have been reluctant to send the extra troops and equipment necessary. As analyst Joyce sees it, NATO is still finding its feet with the deployment in Afghanistan: "Generally speaking, the troops are not trained appropriately to deal with missions like that and this is a very good example of how there is still a lot of work to be done in this transformation process; NATO is learning as it goes along in Afghanistan."

Robertson is known to believe that success in Afghanistan is an essential pre-condition for NATO being taken seriously in its new role around the world. Failure to prevent Afghanistan sinking into lawlessness means failure of his vision for the Atlantic alliance. As Robertson said in comments last week: "I'm hopeful that we will fill all of the existing gaps in the requirement for ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Kabul. Certain measures are underway at the present moment which the appropriate nations are considering, and if that fails then we've got the ministerial meetings next week. I'm not going to give ministers an easy time if I think that we have not yet put in place all of the capabilities required to do the job and to keep people safe."

Also in Brussels, another problem which must be addressed is the Balkans. The meeting is expected to agree to cut its peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina by at least one-third, from some 12,000 to some 8,000 by the middle of next year. That's largely a result of the United States wanting to cut its troop levels in the Balkans in order to meet its pressing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, there's not likely to be any major cut in the 17,500-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, a region which is considered more volatile than Bosnia and whose constitutional future is still unclear.

The Brussels meeting may address the European Union's offer to take over the military peacekeeping role in Bosnia from NATO. This would fit the EU's desire to take over more security responsibilities in its own "backyard" and at the same time to develop its own fledgling military arm. As Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said in Naples on 29 November: "We have to see that in the European Union, we have to [be able to] find the capacities to act in military questions too, because only together we can have the synergy effect to make Europe again a strong partner in foreign security defense policy."

However, the United States has previously acted to dampen Brussels' hopes in Bosnia, perhaps out of concern that the EU does not have enough experience as an entity to carry out such a potentially complicated mission. Until now, the EU has only run in the Balkans a small force of peacekeepers in Macedonia.

A new complicating factor which has arisen more recently is that, in the strains caused by trans-Atlantic disagreements on Iraq, Washington has grown increasingly concerned about the EU's plans for a military capacity separate from NATO. It is worried that the EU arrangements could eventually become a rival to NATO -- something which the Europeans deny.

In Brussels, the "big three" European powers, France, Germany, and Britain, are expected to explain to Rumsfeld their latest plan for an expanded EU military presence, which they say in no way clashes with NATO's primacy as guarantor of Western security.