The NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday agreed to further cuts in troop levels in Bosnia. At the same time, U.S. and NATO officials raised the possibility of greater NATO involvement in Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the United States was also open to expanding NATO's role in Iraq, although officials yesterday recognized there is little support for the latter within the alliance.
Brussels, 2 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO defense ministers, meeting yesterday in Brussels, agreed to extend the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, mulled over a possible future role in Iraq, and agreed to further cutbacks in NATO forces in Bosnia.
In Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will consolidate its control over five Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). These are teams of soldiers who support and secure development work outside Kabul.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also announced the creation of new PRTs, and said that if NATO's handling of them proves satisfactory, the alliance could at some stage in the future assume overall control of all military operations in Afghanistan. This would include the present U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which currently fields about 11,500 troops in the country.
"We discussed the progress in Afghanistan and the implementation of the alliance decision to expand ISAF beyond Kabul by creating additional Provincial Reconstruction Teams," Rumsfeld said. "If this proves successful, we also discussed the possibility that NATO might take over military operations in Afghanistan sometime in the future, although that remains to be seen."
NATO officials, speaking privately, said up to 17 PRTs might be created, possibly comprising "thousands" of soldiers. However, they also pointed to significant shortfalls in ISAF capabilities. At least 3,000 new troops were said to be needed to run all of the planned PRTs.
More immediate concerns, however, dominated the talks. Officials said NATO is in dire need of 400 additional personnel to continue operations as planned. One official said ISAF urgently needs three counterintelligence teams, five human intelligence teams, as well as 14 helicopters -- eight "utility" craft, three light and three attack helicopters.
The helicopters were said to be crucial for NATO's mission. Their absence so far has proven an embarrassment for the alliance. NATO's strategic reserves contain more than 7,000 helicopters, but the alliance's secretary-general, Lord George Robertson, has so far only succeeded in persuading the German contingent in ISAF to leave three medical-evacuation craft in Afghanistan longer than initially intended.
Nevertheless, some offers for contributions were made. Belgium, Iceland, and Turkey offered vital personnel to help NATO take over the Kabul airport next spring. Turkey and Spain offered intelligence teams, as has Romania -- but its offered contingent of 30 people is still being certified. The Czech Republic offered 150 people, half to help secure the Kabul airport, the other half to join Enduring Freedom.
NATO officials yesterday said alliance members need to improve the coordination of their assets in Afghanistan, so that "efforts go where the need is greatest." Currently, many allies invest most of their resources in the PRTs they are most closely involved with.
Alliance ministers also discussed a possible NATO role in Iraq, although this is understood to be only in the early stages of discussion. Rumsfeld yesterday said the United States is open to NATO involvement, but officials privately said only two European allies had suggested NATO could take over two of the coalition's multinational divisions in the country.
The ministers also continued their mission review in the Balkans. Officials say troop levels in Bosnia will be reduced by March to 7,000 from the present 12,000. In Kosovo, where the situation was said to be "not yet as positive," NATO forces might see small reductions to 17,500 troops next year.
Rumsfeld yesterday affirmed the continuing commitment of the United States in the Balkans, although he indicated it could come to an end together with the NATO mandate later this year. "The NATO forces and Bosnia and Kosovo had an understanding that we would go in together and out together," he said. "That has been the case for the most part -- there have been some exceptions, I think, and those forces have been in the process of being drawn down, as the circumstances -- for example, in Bosnia -- have improved. What will take place after NATO's formal role ends is open for discussion and would be something that obviously would be a result of consultations with Bosnia and among the NATO countries."
A NATO official said yesterday that an EU takeover of the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia no longer appears "contentious," adding that it is welcomed by most allies on the assumption that the EU will continue using NATO assets.
The official said NATO would retain a presence in Bosnia in the longer term through a representative office in Sarajevo, which will be set up to help the country in institution building and developing closer political ties with the alliance.
Finally, although Iran was not directly discussed by NATO ministers, it was nevertheless mentioned by Rumsfeld within the context of the Nuclear Planning Group meeting. A senior U.S defense official said Rumsfeld expressed doubt in Iran's argument that it needs nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Rumsfeld reportedly said Iran needs nuclear energy "like it needs sand."