- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said NATO’s mission in Afghanistan must remain the alliance’s “first priority,” even as the Bush administration pushes for a NATO deployment to Iraq later this year.

Mr. Powell made his remarks after a meeting with new NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who faces the delicate task of mending fences within the alliance following the divisive war in Iraq.

The continuing danger in Afghanistan, the first “out-of-area” mission for NATO in its history, was underscored yesterday when at least seven American troops were killed while working near an ammunition dump in the southern province of Ghazni. Another soldier was missing and two persons were wounded in the blast.

A U.S. military statement did not indicate the cause of the blast, which occurred in a region where some 12,000 U.S. troops are battling al Qaeda terrorists and militants of the ousted fundamentalist Taliban regime.

A stepped-up campaign by the Taliban has been blamed for the deaths of more than 80 soldiers and civilians in the past month. This week has seen suicide bombs that killed two NATO peacekeepers — a Canadian and a Briton — in Kabul itself, the first fatalities of their kind in months.

U.S. officials would very much like to see NATO support for the peacekeeping effort in Iraq, where American forces still represent the overwhelming bulk of the foreign troop presence. But NATO officials have been skittish about committing to Iraq while Afghanistan remains so unsettled.

Afghanistan “should be the first priority,” Mr. Powell said.

He said the Iraq mission remained an open question, and NATO could eventually “have some responsibilities” there.

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, a veteran Dutch diplomat who took over the NATO post at the beginning of the year, has been prodding alliance skeptics to consider the U.S. request to take a major role in the Iraq peacekeeping mission.

In his first trip to Washington since assuming the NATO job, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer will meet with President Bush today in the Oval Office, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

NATO has about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, but is largely confined to the area around the capital Kabul. The alliance is planning a major expansion of its mission to provinces around the country where the ousted Taliban regime and local warlords still hold great power.

Afghanistan’s U.S. ambassador earlier this week implored the United States and other nations for new investment in his troubled nation, saying the heightened insurgency threatens to derail the country’s planned June elections.

“We urgently need assistance from the international community, especially in army and police reconstruction,” Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad told reporters.

He said disarming local militias and curbing the country’s illegal drug trade are top priorities.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, warned earlier this week that the United States risked losing the gains made in the 2001-2002 victory over the Taliban if more attention and resources are not focused on Afghanistan.

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