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Afghanistan: U.S. Pushes NATO Allies For Greater Involvement

The United States is increasing pressure on its NATO allies to contribute more troops and equipment to expanding so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.

Brussels, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. representatives at NATO say they remain optimistic that the alliance will deliver on its promise to set up five new Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan before summer.

However, a certain sense of urgency is becoming evident in U.S. statements, suggesting that finding soldiers and resources for the PRTs is not yet a foregone conclusion.

He also repeatedly stressed that the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan will soon eclipse the importance the United States attaches to existing missions in the Balkans.
PRTs serve as regional headquarters for reconstruction projects by NATO and coalition forces.

Yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels that it is of "critical importance" to the United States that NATO meets these commitments and "steps out to do the job that was promised." NATO is leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Burns said he is "very optimistic" that the PRT goal is within reach.

"I can tell you and report to you based on the last week or so of conversations here at NATO that I'm very optimistic that NATO is going to meet its commitment to establish these five Provincial Reconstruction Teams, certainly by the Istanbul summit [in June]. We have commitments from five countries to lead the five separate PRTs," Burns said.

Burns, like other NATO officials, did not specify how many men and what equipment the new PRTs need.

Instead, he said a meeting in Brussels last week had been successful in identifying much of the equipment, resources, and personnel needed to staff the PRTs. He said things are "headed in the right direction."

Burns said the United States expects the suppliers of all major resources to be identified by 2 April, when NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels to celebrate the alliance's expansion.

He also repeatedly stressed that the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan will soon eclipse the importance the United States attaches to existing missions in the Balkans.

NATO officials said yesterday that a high-level joint European Union-NATO delegation will travel to Bosnia in the coming days to prepare for the handover of the NATO mission there to the EUFOR -- the EU's new force.

Burns also indicated the United States wants NATO to become involved in securing upcoming national elections in Afghanistan. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has sent a letter to NATO asking for assistance.

Burns said yesterday that NATO should start preparations as soon as Karzai announces a date for the elections. Karzai yesterday said the vote may be delayed until August.

"As soon as [Karzai] makes that announcement, NATO will obviously have to plan a renewed and expanded mission to support those elections. I think the mood -- certainly in my own government -- is that we should keep all options on the table to do that, that we should be ready to support President Karzai and the Afghan people in this process," Burns said.

In parallel, the head of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno -- who was also in Brussels yesterday -- said the coalition is looking to increase the number of PRTs it operates to at least 15 by mid-summer, instead of the present 12.

While NATO concentrates on the north and the west of the country, coalition PRTs are mostly active in the south and east of Afghanistan. Those PRTs have U.S. infantry detachments that conduct security patrols. Barno said the security threat from Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives is highest in what he called the "Pashtun belt" in the southeast.

"In terms of security throughout the country, right now we have a variety of different security challenges in different parts of the country. In the south and east of the country, along the border with Pakistan, the primary security threat there is terrorist organizations. As we know, the Pakistanis are in the midst of an operation on their side of the border today. It's looking very promising in terms of uprooting Al-Qaeda elements over there. In other parts of the country, I would judge that the security issues are more related to banditry, to some degree some growing drug concerns, and some of the regional problems with factional leaders," Barno said.

Barno said he could not confirm a recent assessment by General James Jones, head of NATO forces in Europe, that fewer than 1,000 active Al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants are left in Afghanistan. Barno said such figures are "difficult to calibrate."

Barno said U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan are increasingly trying to share the security burden with units of Afghan forces in order to build trust within the local population.