- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Outgoing NATO chief George Robertson said yesterday that the trans-Atlantic alliance should take up a U.S. invitation to deploy in Iraq as long as it does not harm NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.

Nearing the end of an event-filled, sometimes tumultuous four-year term as NATO secretary-general, the former British defense minister warned that NATO must not fail in its Afghan stabilization mission, the first non-European operation in the history of the 54-year-old alliance.

“Failure in Afghanistan would be a crushing blow,” Mr. Robertson told NATO’s North Atlantic Council in Brussels, chairing his last meeting of the alliance’s executive arm before formally stepping down Dec. 31.

But, Mr. Robertson added, “As the world’s only multinational force packager, we should not stand aside if Iraq needs our specific involvement.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who will succeed Mr. Robertson, faces another busy and delicate year for the alliance.

The 19 NATO countries must decide next year whether to expand the mission in Afghanistan beyond the capital, Kabul, heal the bitter internal division over Iraq, define the relationship with Russia and prepare for a June summit in Istanbul that will welcome seven new Central and East European nations.

In separate trips to Brussels this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called on NATO to take over a separate 11,500-troop U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, targeting fighters loyal to terror network al Qaeda and the ousted Taliban regime.

Mr. Powell said NATO also should consider a direct role in the U.S.-led security mission in Iraq, where the alliance currently provides a support role for a Polish-led contingent in the southern provinces.

Opposition led by France and Germany to the war in Iraq had produced one of the deepest splits in NATO’s history, but 16 of its members are involved in the Iraq reconstruction and stabilization effort.

At the State Department yesterday, European Union defense chief Javier Solana, Mr. Robertson’s predecessor in the NATO top post, said he would “not close off the possibility” of a NATO deployment in Iraq.

Mr. Solana said the Afghan mission has set a precedent for “out-of-area” missions for NATO, something that would have been “unthinkable” a few years ago.

But Mr. de Hoop Scheffer faces a tough task in getting NATO members to contribute more troops and resources to Afghanistan. Mr. Robertson, who pressed European capitals tirelessly to increase their lagging defense budgets, managed only with difficulty to muster the 5,300 NATO troops now guarding Kabul.

Analysts say the low-key Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, 55, will present a contrast in style from the often-blunt Mr. Robertson, who worked in the Scottish labor movement for decades. As defense chief under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Robertson won favor in Washington for his hard line and tough talk in the 1999 war in Kosovo.

The Netherlands backed the Bush administration’s hard line against Saddam Hussein and has more than 1,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.

But Mr. de Hoop Scheffer was careful not to burn bridges with Paris and Berlin, declining to sign a joint letter in March drafted by Britain, Spain and other U.S. allies staunchly supporting military action.

The Dutch diplomat has made clear that mending internal fences in the alliance will be critical in the coming year.

“It is very important to keep the alliance, the American side and the European NATO allies as well, on the same track,” he said recently.

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