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Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine Top Agenda For NATO Defense Ministers

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) meets with Polish soldiers after signing a memorandum on cooperation between the Polish and U.S. militaries in Krakow.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) meets with Polish soldiers after signing a memorandum on cooperation between the Polish and U.S. militaries in Krakow.

KRAKOW (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers have gathered in Krakow, Poland, for two days of talks expected to focus on a review of the alliance's operations in Afghanistan.

The talks are considered informal, but their discussions will help create the agenda of the next summit of NATO heads of state and government, which is scheduled for April 3-4.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the challenges ahead include getting more troop contributions for the fight against militants, and to help provide security for the country's presidential elections in August.

"The United States, I'm quite sure, will discuss where their thinking is on strategy," Appathurai said. "We will need to discuss how to do election support. The elections are August 20, I believe. And NATO will play its part with extra forces."

Other key themes of talks in Krakow are NATO support to the expanding national army, the possibilities of enhancing support for the national police force, and a review of the international community's political-military plan.

'Disappointing' Reaction

U.S. President Barack Obama announced earlier this week that he will send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan -- raising the total number of U.S. troops deployed there to more than 50,000.

Analysts say the timing of Obama's announcement, just ahead of the Krakow talks, could increase pressure on other NATO countries to send more troops.

Speaking on February 18 as he flew to Krakow, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington expects its NATO allies to contribute more troops ahead of the election. Gates said the response so far has been "disappointing."

Indeed, several European officials in Krakow have expressed reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan -- where military commanders say at least 10,000 additional soldiers are needed to provide security ahead of presidential elections in August.

Germany confirmed on February 19 that it would send 600 more soldiers to Afghanistan. But German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung also said that he opposes U.S. plans to use the embryonic NATO Response Force to provide security before and during the Afghan elections. Jung said the NATO Response Force is not meant to be used as a reserve force.

British Defense Secretary John Hutton told reporters his initial view is that other countries must make troop contributions ahead of any extra contribution from the United Kingdom. Britain currently has 8,300 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan -- many of them in the volatile south. That makes the British force second only to the United States in terms of the number of troops deployed.

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich also ruled out any additional troop deployments to Afghanistan in the near future. Poland currently has about 1,600 soldiers on the ground there.

'See Other Allies Step Up'

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that, if alliance members are unable or unwilling to contribute more troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, they should instead disburse more reconstruction aid.

"2009 will see an infusion of United States forces in this operation," he said. "And I strongly hope that we will also see the other allies step up with more forces, and where that is not possible, with more civilian aid -- development cooperation and reconstruction aid. I think it is fair and I think also politically healthy for the alliance if we have a fair sharing of the burdens in this alliance and in this mission between all of the allies."

He added that the Afghan government could also be making a bigger contribution.

"The Afghan government could make a greater effort to root out corruption and increase efficiency," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We, the ISAF nations, must provide more forces, more trainers, and election support in a more joined-up approach."

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, says extra troops are badly needed. McKiernan told journalists in Washington on February 18 that the coming year will be "tough" for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

"I will use most of those [additional U.S.] forces in the southern part of Afghanistan, an area where we do not have sufficient security presence, an area that has deteriorated somewhat, an area where we need persistent security presence in order to fight a counterinsurgency and to shape, clear, hold, and build in support of the rapidly developing Afghan capacity," McKiernan said.

McKiernan said the deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. troops should be completed in time for them to help provide security for the presidential vote.

'Windows Of Security'

General Richard Blanchette, an ISAF spokesman, told reporters in Kabul that countries that do not send more troops should send more financial aid.

"We have always said that we needed to have more troops so that we can establish more of these windows of security," Blanchette said. "But we have to ensure we have enough resources from the international community to complete this, because once you have that security, you have to discuss with your local authorities what you want to do with that new environment and then to have the resources to build what is required, something that would make a change in the life of the Afghan people."

In Krakow on February 20, NATO defense ministers will review the alliance's ongoing transformation -- including the implementation of the NATO Response Force, and reforms within NATO headquarters.

Later in the day, the NATO-Ukraine Commission will review defense and security-sector reform in Ukraine and discuss the national program currently being developed.

Finally, the NATO-Georgia Commission will convene to discuss NATO's assistance to Georgia in the aftermath of its war with Russia last August. Other issues on the agenda of that meeting include Georgia's defense reforms and its priorities for 2009 -- including a review of Georgia's national security strategy.

De Hoop Scheffer notes that NATO foreign ministers plan to gather for a meeting in Brussels next month to help prepare for the agenda of April's NATO summit.

"I would not be surprised if the [NATO] foreign ministers' meeting in March would also pay attention to the NATO-Russia relationship, given the fact that ministers asked me at their meeting in December to be instrumental in a gradual re-engagement with the Russian Federation, which I also think is necessary," he said.

Russia's relations with NATO were damaged as a result of the Russia-Georgia war.

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