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American Forces Press Service

NATO Prepares to Expand Mission into Southern Afghanistan

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

BERLIN, Sept. 15, 2005 NATO defense ministers, who met here Sept. 13 and 14, "are strongly committed to expanding NATO's role" in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a Sept. 14 news conference.

"By spring, our goal is for NATO to partner with the Afghan National Army to manage security in what will amount to something like three quarters of that country," he said.

The secretary said U.S. forces would continue to play a strong role.

Discussions during the Sept. 14 meetings focused on expanding NATO influence into the southern part of Afghanistan, including the area around Kandahar, a historic Taliban stronghold.

Coalition and alliance military planners are pushing to get NATO "fully engaged" in the south by mid-2006, a senior U.S. defense official said Sept. 13.

Expanding friendly influence into the south will represent "Stage 3" of a four-step plan to bring security and democracy to Afghanistan.

The four steps represent geographic quadrants of the country, the official explained. Coalition and NATO forces are fully ensconced in the northern and western regions of Afghanistan, signifying the completion of Stages 1 and 2. The eastern region, including the area along the Pakistani border, represents Stage 4.

Completing Stage 3 "will involve significantly expanded contributions by NATO," the official said. "NATO will be taking on more responsibility, moving towards full responsibility." He could give no estimate on if or when NATO might take full control of operations in Afghanistan.

Media reports alluded to a controversy over a possible "joint command" of the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, and Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S.-led coalition mission there. But NATO and U.S. leaders downplayed the significance of the issue.

"I would characterize it as 'much ado about nothing,'" Rumsfeld said in his news conference.

He said a series of memoranda of understanding lay out the command relationship between the two missions. "It's all been worked out in a very orderly way so that we had a unity of effort if not unity of command," the secretary said. "Military commands are discussing ways ahead, (so it's) really no issue. It's all kind of an artificial issue."

The ministers, however, did discuss a need for "more synergy" between the two missions.

"They must coordinate more closely, and they must therefore make the appropriate arrangements for this synergy," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. He added that command arrangements are being discussed among the parties because they all are seeking "a shared way forward here."

A senior NATO diplomat, speaking on background Sept. 14, indicated that even the possibility of such a joint command was a long way off. "We have not had (North Atlantic Council)-level (or) ambassadorial-level conversations about that yet," the diplomat said. "And we certainly haven't had ministerial conversations. There is military planning and military thinking going on, but it hasn't come forward yet.

"I think what's most important at this stage and what ministers are focused on in that room today is ensuring we succeed as NATO moves into the south," the diplomat added. "And I think that we will."

In response to a reporter's question about future U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld stressed his answer hasn't changed from the many other times he's been asked this question.

"This question comes up periodically, and ... I almost feel like I could flip a switch in my back and get the same answer," he said with a chuckle. "The first part of the answer is that the only people who are going to increase or decease U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan will be the president of the United States or me. And it will result from recommendations from the field commanders.

"The second part of the answer is: We constantly are asking our field commanders to look at the situation, see what the conditions are and then we'll ask our planners in the Pentagon, in the services to look at various levels of forces -- higher, same, lower -- and either increasing them or decreasing them as the circumstances required for some number of years now."

Again with a chuckle, Rumsfeld promised to make an announcement if and when a decision had been made to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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