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NATO Meeting to Focus on Afghanistan, Missile Defense

By Meredith Buel
10 June 2008

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is attending a NATO defense ministers meeting Thursday and Friday in Brussels to discuss the military forces in Afghanistan and other issues affecting the alliance. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this preview report from the Pentagon.

NATO is playing a key role in the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year plan between the government in Kabul and the international community, which sets goals relating to the security, governance and economic development of the country.

At the NATO summit in April, world leaders agreed to a strategic vision for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, that promised a long-term commitment of cooperation and engagement with the country and its neighbors, especially Pakistan.

At the upcoming meeting in Brussels, defense ministers are expected to discuss the rotation of command in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency has been difficult to defeat.

A tentative agreement with the Netherlands and Britain would have those countries each command the volatile area for a year, beginning in November when Canada ends its current rotation.

In an interview with VOA, Dan Fata, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, says defense ministers have agreed on the plan, which is now pending before their respective governments.

"What we are looking to do is reinforce success in the south by extending the command rotations by those allies that are already in the rotation loop and look to see if a few years out if the U.S. can assume a command rotation as well," he said.

Also to be discussed are U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe, which would be based in Poland and the Czech Republic and aimed at so-called rogue states like Iran.

NATO has endorsed the plan despite vehement opposition from Russia.

Fata says he hopes to have agreements from both countries in the next few months, although such previous predictions have not been accurate.

"With respect to the status of the negotiations, they have gone well. We are far down the path with the Czech Republic. We hope to work with the Czech government to possibly sign a document before the end of the summer. Regarding Poland, we are not as far along. We hope to pickup progress soon and continue dialog, again with the goal of hopefully being able to sign something before the end of the summer," he said.

Defense ministers at the upcoming meetings in Brussels will also focus on expanding the 26-nation alliance.

Albania and Croatia have been invited to join NATO. A third Balkan nation, Macedonia, has also met the criteria for membership, but final action has been delayed because of a dispute with Greece.

Macedonia has the same name as a region in Greece, and the Greek government is demanding a change.

Fata says the larger issue of NATO's military capabilities will be a main concern of Defense Secretary Gates.

"I think he wants to be able to walk away continuing a discussion about the need to insure the alliance remains a military organization with the capabilities, which means the forces and the equipment and all the enabling capabilities to make the alliance effective in every operation it currently has under way and there will be a big, robust discussion about capabilities," he said.

NATO currently has about 53,000 soldiers under its command in Afghanistan and is focused on security issues, building the Afghan Army and paving the way for reconstruction and a strong central government.

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