Prague, 1 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's top commander, U.S. General James Jones, says the alliance is now "correctly poised and sized" for its security mission during Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on 18 September.
Jones completed a two-day visit to Afghanistan yesterday that included security talks with President Hamid Karzai. Jones told reporters after those talks that NATO -- the leader of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan -- already is looking beyond the parliamentary vote.
"Not only will it be concerned with the security of the parliamentary elections that are coming up in September, but it will also be the transitional period in which NATO continues its expanded mission in Afghanistan," Jones said.
The NATO deployments completed this week -- involving troops mostly from Spain, Romania, and the Netherlands -- take the total number of alliance troops in Afghanistan to 11,000. The alliance also has backing from increased air power. Jones said the strength of ISAF should be sufficient to guarantee security in Kabul and in the northern and western regions of Afghanistan that are under NATO's security umbrella.
As with the Afghan presidential election last October, the primary responsibility for security at the polling stations lies with Afghanistan's own security forces -- the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. But Jones said the NATO troops will be close by in the north and west with ground forces and air support if necessary.
A separate contingent of about 20,000 troops -- the U.S.-led combat force on the ground as part of Operation Enduring Freedom -- is in charge of bolstering security in the south and east of Afghanistan, where fighting with Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants continues.
The coalition has launched a series of military offensives in the south and east of the country since the start of spring this year, focusing on Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants who have vowed to disrupt the ballot. Militants have also increased their attacks on coalition troops -- as well as civilian contractors and Afghan election workers, parliamentary candidates, and moderate clerics.
About 1,000 people have been killed in the surge of violence this year. Most have been suspected militants or Afghan civilians, but about 50 U.S. soldiers have died in combat since the spring thaw.
Significantly, Jones said that NATO is now planning for the eventual takeover of those U.S.-led combat operations -- possibly within the next year.
"Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF will eventually merge and become one mission."
"The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says that Afghanistan is its No. 1 mission. And it remains committed to that statement," Jones said. "It intends to be faithful to that statement by expanding the mission even further during the course of the next year to such a point that Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF will eventually merge and become one mission. It will bring a new vitality and a new agility to this effort. And Afghanistan will be all the better for it."
Such a move could free up U.S. troops in Afghanistan for deployment to Iraq. But France and Germany have previously expressed doubts about the idea of merging UN-mandated security assistance with U.S.-led combat operations.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the issue has been discussed in recent months by defense ministers from NATO countries. The NATO spokesman said the issue will certainly be raised again when alliance defense ministers gather in Berlin in mid-September.
"This meeting does come at a good time to allow ministers to reflect, in a more political way, on some of the very important issues on their agenda," Appathurai said. "For example, they will want to look at the long-term future for NATO in Afghanistan as part of the international community's efforts to support the Karzai government once we have moved beyond what is called the Bonn Process. In other words, once the district and provincial elections have taken place, the international community will want a new approach that will, of course, take into account the issue of narcotics."
Appathurai said no formal decisions will be taken in Berlin because it is an informal meeting meant to allow ministers to discuss their political perspectives.
The European Union also is concerned about the future role of international troops and government aid workers in Afghanistan. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said it is "crucial" for the international community to stay engaged in Afghanistan after the elections.
In a statement issued yesterday, Ferrero-Waldner said a new "post-Bonn compact" is needed between Afghanistan and the international community to ensure that both sides maintain their commitments in the years to come.
Ferrero-Waldner is due to meet with Karzai in Kabul next week for talks expected to include the issue of a "post-Bonn" agreement.
(RFE/RL Afghan Service correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from Kabul.)See also:
"Violence Spiraling As Afghan Elections Near"
"UN Envoy Warns Violence Could Disrupt Afghan Polls"For in-depth analysis and coverage of Afghanistan's 18 September elections, visit Afghanistan Votes 2005