- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

TAORMINA, Italy — The United States favors NATO eventually taking full command of the international military effort to stabilize Afghanistan, but that will not include a separate American-led counterterrorism mission against al Qaeda, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday.

Mr. Rumsfeld arrived in this Sicilian seaside resort to attend two days of talks with North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers, who are committed to expanding the alliance’s military mission in Afghanistan.

NATO is expected to take over the security mission in southern Afghanistan by this summer, and Mr. Rumsfeld said he supported the goal of eventually having NATO in charge of the coalition effort across the country.

“I’m very comfortable with it,” he told reporters aboard his plane en route from Washington.

He drew the line, however, at the counterterrorism mission, which is being performed mainly by U.S. special operations forces such as Army Special Forces and Navy SEAL commandos.

They have been searching for al Qaeda fighters since the early days of the U.S. invasion in 2001, when al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden fled into the mountainous Tora Bora area and then possibly into neighboring Pakistan.

NATO has been extending its security forces into northern and western Afghanistan to help provide enough security to enable humanitarian and reconstruction projects to proceed. It also has helped train the Afghan national army, but it has left much of the direct combat action to American forces.

Some NATO members have chosen to contribute to the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo instead of Afghanistan, where the dangers are greater. Mr. Rumsfeld said that in light of those choices, he would like to see U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo be withdrawn faster than those of other allied nations.

“We would kind of like to see if it’s possible for us to have a somewhat disproportionate reduction when the reductions take place,” he said.

The United States has about 1,700 peacekeeping troops in Kosovo.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he would meet separately today with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov. Russia is not a NATO member but holds regular talks with the alliance through a NATO-Russia Council set up in 2002.

The U.S. government has been critical of Russia’s willingness to assist Iran in its nuclear program, and last fall Russia signed a new agreement to sell short-range surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he expected the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to arise during the NATO conference, but that it was primarily a matter for allied diplomats, not defense chiefs.

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