- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

BRUSSELS — NATO defense ministers struggled yesterday to plug gaps in their peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan after warnings that a failure there could return the country to chaos and destroy the alliance’s credibility.

“Governments must have the political will to deploy and to use [their] forces in much larger numbers than at present,” said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. “We must stay the course in Afghanistan. … If we don’t, Afghanistan and its problems will appear on all of our doorsteps.”

Despite the problems in mustering troops for Afghanistan, Mr. Robertson and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed optimism that the allies would come through.

“My estimate is that within a reasonable period of time, [Mr. Robertson] will be able to encourage, persuade … NATO nations to provide the forces necessary,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a news conference.

Mr. Robertson also suggested that NATO might begin talks next year on a wider alliance role in Iraq, perhaps taking charge of the central zone currently managed by Polish troops.

Mr. Robertson is demanding that ministers offer 14 helicopters and about 400 specialist troops to the NATO force of 5,700 in Kabul.

He also wants them to muster extra forces so the alliance can keep its pledge to the United Nations to expand the operation, first to the northern city of Kunduz. He warned that failure of the mission could “shatter” NATO’s credibility and result in Afghanistan again becoming a base for international terrorism.

Although Norway, Iceland, Spain and others offered some personnel, nations were reluctant to provide the much-needed helicopters. Greece said all its aircraft were needed to protect next year’s Olympics, France said it was stretched thin with commitments in Africa, and Belgium said its helicopters could not operate safely in Afghanistan for “technical reasons.”

The ministers also agreed to cut NATO’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia by almost half to 7,000, preparing the way for a likely end to that mission in late 2004.

The troop reduction is expected to be followed quickly by NATO ending the Bosnia mission it began in 1995, handing control to a European Union force of soldiers and police.

The two-day meeting that began yesterday gave European allies a chance to discuss with Mr. Rumsfeld a plan cobbled up last weekend to boost the European Union’s ability to mount its own military operations.

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