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NATO: Alliance's Role Shifts Toward Fight Against Terrorism

NATO defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, have agreed to re-equip the alliance to deal with the threat of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told his colleagues that the threat is real, but the ministers apparently did not discuss how much money would be needed to counter it.

Brussels, 7 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday took a step toward reorienting the alliance toward fighting international terrorism and the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The ministers said in a joint communique that in order to do this NATO will be equipped with modernized forces and capabilities, and will review its decision-making structures. The decision to reform NATO is likely to be formally endorsed by NATO heads of state at a summit later this year in Prague.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said the decision to task NATO with countering terrorism will have a profound impact on its development: "[The decisions] will ensure that the alliance -- and indeed, conceivably, an enlarged alliance -- will remain vital and effective. Today's decisions pave the way for a successful summit meeting of NATO in Prague later this year, which will see the emergence of a modernized, updated North Atlantic Treaty Organization, equipped to face new and daunting challenges."

Robertson said U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave his colleagues a "tough briefing" on the dangers emanating from so-called rogue states and terrorist groups.

U.S. defense officials, who wished to remain anonymous, said Rumsfeld's presentation led to what they called a "broad agreement" among NATO allies that urgent action is necessary to counter the threats.

Addressing a news conference after the meeting, Rumsfeld didn't mince his words describing the severity of the terrorism problem: "This threat is not theoretical. It's real, it's dangerous. If we do not prepare completely to counter it, we could well experience attacks in our countries that could make the events of 11 September seem modest by comparison."

Rumsfeld is reported to have called for NATO to assume a more offensive stance and consider preemptive measures against assumed terrorist threats.

Robertson refused to speculate whether the essentially defensive alliance would take on a more offensive role in the future, but did acknowledge that "simply waiting" for trouble to appear "might not be the best way of dealing with it." The U.S. sources cited above say that although there was no specific discussion of which rogue states pose which threats, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Libya were all mentioned.

The package of reform agreed by NATO ministers in principle yesterday will cover four topics: countering weapons of mass destruction, building secure communication capabilities, enhancing the mobility of NATO forces, and improving conventional capabilities.

Robertson said there had been no direct discussion of the amount of money that upgrading European forces would entail. For a number of years, Washington has urged its allies to follow its lead and spend more on defense, but to little avail. The recent $48 billion increase of the U.S. annual defense budget alone surpasses the combined defense budgets of Britain and France, the next biggest-spending allies.

NATO defense ministers also agreed to review the alliance's command structures to better adapt it to the new tasks. This review, which has already begun, would involve all levels of decision making. The review is expected to be formally endorsed by the Prague summit and to conclude by next summer.

Elaborating on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, one U.S. official said NATO had so far mostly dealt with chemical weapons, and now needs to develop its thinking on how to deal with both nuclear and biological dangers.

After closed discussions, NATO defense ministers together with their Russian colleagues later held the first-ever meeting of the joint NATO-Russia Council. The council was set up in Rome 10 days ago.

Both NATO and Russia said after the meeting that they were "satisfied" with the first results. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said he was pleased with what he described as the "concrete, practical" decisions already taken on a number of military issues: "I think that one of the most important avenues of NATO-Russia cooperation is the fight against terrorism, and we concretely agreed to undertake joint action in liquidating threats to our troops deployed in the Balkans. But that is just the beginning. We're analyzing threats to Russian and NATO forces in the entire Euro-Atlantic space."

Robertson, who chaired the joint meeting, said the council discussed a number of strategic areas such the fight against terrorism, prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and cooperation in the field of missile defense, as well as practical issues like the use of Russian long-haul aircraft by NATO's European allies.

Robertson said he left yesterday's meeting feeling "even more optimistic than after the Rome summit."