German Defense Minister Peter Struck told reporters at the start of a two-day meeting in the mountain resort of Poiana Brasov that NATO's mission in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country -- not to fight international terrorism.
Struck said he opposes the proposal to integrate the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan with the U.S.-commanded combat mission that is fighting remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
At present, operations in Afghanistan are split between the 18,000-strong combat force and a NATO contingent half that size, which is focusing on improving security.
Struck's comments came after Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday that Washington's aim is to combine the two missions under an alliance commander, possibly as early as 2005.
Since August 2003, NATO has run a peacekeeping mission in the Afghan capital Kabul, separate from the U.S. combat mission. In recent months, NATO has expanded the mission into northern provinces in Afghanistan and is now seeking to increase its 8,000-troop force to move into a western sector.
Germany is one of the largest contributors to the peacekeeping mission with 2,500 soldiers.
Despite Germany's initial rejection of the U.S. proposal, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview with the Reuters news agency that NATO will discuss integrating the two missions.
"To have two separate missions [in Afghanistan] -- OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] -- is not the ideal model for the longer term," de Hoop Scheffer said. "And that is why -- in the operational plan, I mean -- the ambition has already been written down to integrate the two missions. So I think this is certainly what the alliance will be doing, and we'll discuss the details."
De Hoop Scheffer suggested one solution would be to have one commander for the whole operation but to maintain two missions -- for example, one with a combat function and the other with the stabilization tasks that NATO has been doing.
De Hoop Scheffer said a way could be found "of fulfilling our ambition to integrate the two missions and still respect those elements which are important in some allied nations."
De Hoop Scheffer also announced today that a NATO rapid-reaction force launched two years ago is now up and running with an initial troop strength of some 17,500. He said the NATO Reaction Force (NRF) is a "valuable and important instrument."
"Well, the NRF [NATO Reaction Force] is a very modern force consisting of land forces, ground forces, air forces, special forces, and it can do a lot of things," de Hoop Scheffer said. "It is well-trained. It is well-equipped. It is easy to send to any theater the allies would like it sent to."
Besides Afghanistan, the meeting is also scheduled to discuss current operations in the Balkans, as well as NATO's assistance in training Iraq's security forces and NATO's response to terrorism.
NATO approved an outline plan last week to send around 300 instructors to train senior Iraqi commanders of the country's new military.
But military planners already have had difficulty finding trainers needed for the dangerous and costly operation. Germany, France, Spain, and Belgium have said they will not send any soldiers to Iraq.
The two-day NATO meeting is the first to take place in one of the seven Eastern and Central European nations that joined the alliance in April.
Tomorrow, NATO ministers are scheduled to hold an informal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
[For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.]