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Afghanistan: NATO Steps Up 'Force Generation' For Reconstruction Teams

A major meeting focusing on Afghanistan is taking place today at NATO's military headquarters in Mons, Belgium. NATO officials say member states of the alliance will be asked to contribute troops and assets toward setting up more so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north and west of the country. PRTs are expected to play a crucial role in stabilizing Afghanistan ahead of elections later this year.

Brussels, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- All of NATO's 19 allies are expected to be present today at NATO's military headquarters in Belgium to discuss Afghanistan's security.

Alliance leaders hope that member countries will match their political resolve with resources to set up at least five new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north and west of the country.

NATO's top commander in Europe, General James L. Jones, said yesterday that ample contributions of troops and technology are essential if the alliance is to develop a capability to intervene in conflicts "as they occur." However, NATO's top officials -- including Jones -- did not appear overly optimistic yesterday.

The alliance's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, last night declined to outline any concrete expectations. "What I expect and what I hope is that we'll see an expansion in numbers of the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and the [non-NATO] forces coming with us," he said. "That would be a very good result. We discussed this in Munich [in February]. We will certainly discuss it again here on 2 April in Brussels when [NATO] foreign ministers meet [informally to mark the accession of seven new countries]. It is, of course, [the International Security Assistance Force], NATO taking more responsibility than at the moment in Kabul and Konduz, where as you know ISAF has responsibility for the German-led PRT in Kunduz, and I'm confident that the result of tomorrow's force generation conference will be a good one."

"We hope that elections will take place in due course -- that means around the summer, maybe a little bit after the summer."
NATO has in recent months struggled to find resources for Afghanistan. Yesterday, Jones said the situation is improving. In particular, he said the lack of helicopters that has beset NATO-led ISAF forces since last autumn has now been resolved. Turkey has said it will contribute three Blackhawks and the Netherlands six Apaches to complement the three German transport helicopters already in Afghanistan.

Jones said today's "force generation" event is intended to address requirements for three PRTs in the north. Besides the German-operated team in Konduz, ISAF hopes to set up two more -- in Feysabad and Meymaneh. He said two "forward operating bases" will also be set up in Mazar-e Sharif and Herat. Such fortified bases are set up at the forward edge of potential battle areas and are used for the deployment of combat troops.

Jones said ISAF will work its way down from Herat incrementally towards the south and east, each move "measured and matched by resources."

Jones said he is also looking to increase the efficiency of national contributions, trying to remove as much of the national element as possible to save duplication costs and "pare down" command structures. He also said he'll be asking for technological support that can be expanded to cover the entire country, if necessary -- mentioning communications infrastructure as one example.

According to Jones, by NATO's Istanbul summit in June, up to 18 PRTs could be operational in Afghanistan -- five run by ISAF and the rest by the U.S.-led coalition. In the long run, ISAF is expected to assume command of all PRTs in the country.

NATO officials yesterday said Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai had written NATO asking for support in voter registration and in conducting the elections, which are tentatively scheduled for June. De Hoop Scheffer last night confirmed he had received the letter, but warned that the primary responsibility for securing the polls will rest with Karzai and his fledgling police force.

"Of course, we have started discussion on President Karzai's letter, and where NATO can, within the possibilities that NATO has, ISAF has, we will see what we can do to support the election process. I make one important remark -- which is also in President Karzai's letter -- [and that is] that the first responsibility, of course, is with the Afghan authorities themselves. It is not ISAF taking over first responsibility. ISAF and NATO will be there in a backup role, and we're working hard on arrangements how that could best be done," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Jones yesterday said NATO's military structures are currently examining Karzai's request.

NATO officials yesterday indicated the alliance shares concerns voiced increasingly by the European Union that the elections will have to be delayed.

Last night, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, repeated the point after a meeting with de Hoop Scheffer. "We hope that elections will take place in due course -- that means around the summer, maybe a little bit after the summer. We would like to have the elections, if possible, together -- the presidential and parliamentary elections," Solana said.

However, the overall NATO assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan is upbeat. Jones said yesterday that "two-thirds" of the country is rated "green." Major conflict in "green" regions is considered unlikely, and no large-scale military presence is considered necessary in those areas.

He also said NATO now estimates that fewer than 1,000 Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters remain in the country. This, Jones noted, is a result of three factors. Partly, he said, the "very successful" coalition military operations are responsible, while Afghan citizens themselves have become increasingly more cooperative. And, finally, Pakistan has stepped up operations on its side of the border with Afghanistan, denying insurgents sanctuary.

Jones noted, however, that this assessment will be tested when the spring thaw arrives, as this is when insurgent activity typically resumes.

Jones yesterday also warned that the scale of poppy production "should be a worry not just in the EU but the U.S., too." However, he said it is currently not on the table for "decisive action" by NATO. Jones said the issue is likely to be left for Karzai's administration to tackle when it is "more secure."