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Afghanistan: NATO Mission Bears Signs Of Continuing U.S.-French Tensions

By Ahto Lobjakas

On 26 July, NATO announced the deployment of two battalions to Afghanistan to provide additional security for the 9 October presidential elections. NATO sources say the decision was overshadowed by a disagreement between the French and U.S. delegations, with Paris keen to decrease the formal level of NATO involvement. The standoff reflects a second dispute within the military alliance about whether NATO as a whole can provide training to Iraqi troops.

Brussels, 26 July -- NATO sources say the divisions the alliance experienced over the Iraq war are a thing of the past.

At the same time, however, reconciliation between the two members at the heart of the dispute -- France and the United States -- does not appear to be close.

The latest instance of continuing tension is a war of words over how to describe NATO's eight-week support mission for the Afghan presidential election.

The United States is said to be eager to use the elections as an opportunity for the first mission for the embryonic NATO Response Force (NRF).

But France opposes this, saying the NRF can only be used to respond to genuine crises.

The decision to send two NATO battalions to Afghanistan was made on 23 July with no major disagreement. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer reiterated the decision today.

"The decision of the North Atlantic Council last week was that there will be two battalions -- one battalion north of the Hindu Kush [mountain range], one to the south of the Hindu Kush, and one battalion as the quick reserve force," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Under normal circumstances, a battalion comprises between 500 and 800 troops.

The two battalions on the ground will be provided by Spain and Italy.

The Italian contingent has already been certified as a part of the NRF. NATO officials say this means the Afghan mission has a "link to NRF." However, rather than calling it an NRF mission, officials prefer to say it is "NATO-led."

NATO sources say France believes that designating the Afghanistan mission as an NRF operation would create a dangerous precedent.

The NRF, which is not yet completely operational, is supposed to be used in crisis situations -- for example, when an alliance member state comes under attack.

But officials admit there is the feeling among some member states that France is eager to obstruct initiatives sponsored by the United States.

The issue might be complicated further by the fact that the United States currently provides no troops to the NRF.

Sources said arguments relating to the nature of the Afghanistan mission have continued into this week.

The U.S.-French spat mirrors disagreements relating to the format of another NATO mission agreed at the alliance's Istanbul summit -- to provide training and equipment to the Iraqi security forces.

As with Afghanistan, France wants to decrease the level of formal NATO involvement. President Jacques Chirac in Istanbul insisted that NATO as a whole will not engage in Iraq, and that individual member states will provide the training instead.

Both France and Berlin have also said they will only conduct training outside Iraq.

A decision on the details of the Iraq training mission is expected later this week. Sources say more than one North Atlantic Council meeting might be needed.

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org



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