- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

BRUSSELS — Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer began work as NATO secretary-general yesterday insisting the alliance must focus on expanding its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan before considering a military role in Iraq.

The former Dutch foreign minister, who replaces Britain’s George Robertson in NATO’s top job, also stressed the importance of backing up political decisions, an apparent reference to the reluctance of allied governments to provide resources for the wider Afghan mission.

“The primary focus at the moment should be on Afghanistan,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said as he arrived at NATO headquarters.

“About Iraq, we’ll see and await and … if possible, influence political developments there, but first let’s focus on Afghanistan,” he told reporters.

Responding to appeals from the United Nations and the Afghan government, NATO agreed late last year to expand its 5,500-member peacekeeping operation beyond the capital, Kabul, and into other provincial cities.

Last month, the United States proposed that NATO take a direct role in Iraq. The alliance already is providing communications and other logistical support.

“Iraq will certainly be on the agenda at a certain stage, but let’s take the events step by step,” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said. He added that a decision would depend on political developments in the coming months.

The most likely alliance role would involve taking command of the 9,500-strong multinational division currently run by Poland in central Iraq as part of the U.S.-led occupation force.

Regarding Afghanistan, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer urged the allies to “meet requirements on the ground.”

NATO already has taken charge of a German-led operation in the northern city of Kunduz, but its ability to further extend the mission has been called into doubt by the unwillingness of allied governments to commit sufficient specialist troops and equipment even for the limited Kabul mission.

“NATO cannot afford to lose” in Afghanistan, the new NATO secretary-general said.

The Kabul operation, which began in August, was NATO’s first operation outside Europe or North America. It was seen as a clear sign that the alliance has moved beyond its Cold War role to confront threats from terrorism, failed states or regional crises.

NATO’s swift agreement to take on the Afghan mission also was touted as an indication that the allies had overcome the divisions over Iraq that pushed them into deep crisis early last year.

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer’s caution over NATO’s role in Iraq reflects concern that the alliance would risk military overstretch and continued differences between allies who support the U.S.-led occupation and those such as France and Germany who opposed the war.

Key decisions on the alliance’s next steps are expected at a summit in late June when President Bush joins other NATO leaders in Istanbul.

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