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NATO: Defense Ministers Focusing On Afghanistan, Iraq, Balkans

NATO defense ministers are arriving today in Nice, France, for a two-day meeting focusing on the possible expansion of the alliance into western and southern Afghanistan. The ministers also will discuss NATO's role in Iraq and the Balkans. The talks will prepare the way for political decisions to be made at a 22 February NATO summit in Brussels, scheduled to be attended by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Prague, 9 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the two-day meeting of defense ministers in Nice is an informal gathering that will allow frank and open discussions but without concluding any "formal structural" decisions.

"This meeting will, of course, be very much seen in the context of the summit meeting itself on the 22nd of February, which will be held [in Brussels] at NATO headquarters," Appathurai said. "President Bush and his 25 counterparts, as NATO heads of state and government, will have a very political discussion on what they foresee as the future of the trans-Atlantic community's engagement in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the Balkans."

Like the 22 February summit, talks today in Brussels between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other NATO foreign ministers also are expected to focus on political issues within the alliance. In contrast, Appathurai said the defense ministers will discuss technical details about NATO operations.

"The defense minister's meeting in Nice will concentrate, of course, much more on defense issues, on practical issues," Appathurai said. "That means implementing the missions in Iraq, the operations in Afghanistan and, in Kosovo, they will have a very open discussion also on how to continue the military transformation within the alliance -- improving the reach and modernization of NATO forces, improving the balance between the two sides of the Atlantic in military capabilities."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to urge his European counterparts in Nice to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan so that NATO can expand the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into both the west and south of the country.

Appathurai said agreement is expected on NATO deployments into western Afghanistan. He said the defense ministers also will be discussing the possible future expansion of NATO into southern Afghanistan -- where U.S.-led coalition forces have been fighting the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda since late 2001.
"The NATO allies will take decisions and lay the groundwork for the further expansion of NATO's mission in Afghanistan..." -- NATO spokesman James Appathurai

"Together [at Nice and at the Brussels Summit], the NATO allies will take decisions and lay the groundwork for the further expansion of NATO's mission in Afghanistan -- its operation in Afghanistan, ISAF -- into the west of the country," he said. "[They will] lay the groundwork for expansion into the south [of Afghanistan], as well. They will continue the implementation of the training mission in Iraq, enhancing the training [of Iraqi security forces] that is taking place in Baghdad. They will also look forward to the second stage -- that is, the training that NATO will provide to Iraqi security forces outside the Green Zone at a facility on the border of Baghdad."

Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst based in London, told RFE/RL he thinks it is still too early for Washington to expect its European allies to send a large number of troops to Iraq in order to bolster the U.S. military presence there.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the United States would like NATO to be better involved, [more fully] involved, in the operations in Iraq," Beaver said. "I'm not sure that's going to happen yet. There are a number of NATO countries -- such as Poland, such as Hungary, such as Bulgaria -- who are considering taking their troops out. The first priority of NATO must be to make sure that there are sufficient troops there to support the training of Iraqi [security forces] and also to secure the security of the country. If that can be done, then I think we can look at other missions."

On Afghanistan, Beaver said he thinks it would be politically and tactically prudent for NATO to expand its role into both the western and southern parts of the country.

"It seems to me that it is only logical that ISAF should expand not just to the west, but into the south, as well," he said. "NATO has -- in the shape of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, its premier rapid reaction force that is currently in being -- the capability of actually going to these places and engaging with the Taliban and defeating them. So to me, it is perfectly logical that it should do that. In fact, I think it is probably the only force in the world that would get a mandate to do it."

News agency reports suggest that U.S., Italian, Spanish, and Lithuanian troops may be involved in an expanded NATO presence across Afghanistan. But Beaver said he thinks the most likely force for the task is NATO's so-called Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

"The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which is the most likely force to go into Afghanistan, is what is called a British framework organization," Beaver said. "Forty percent of the officers are British. It is commanded by a British lieutenant general. I don't think that they will be doing things that will be supporting just the Americans. Their job and their remit will be to support the new government in Afghanistan and to secure that country and make it possible for the people to live there."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also is expected to attend the talks in Nice.