POIANA BRASOV, Romania – Germany’s defense minister rejected a U.S proposal to have NATO take over the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan, saying Wednesday that his country wants to focus on stabilization.
Peter Struck spoke on the opening day of a meeting of NATO defense ministers. The proposal would combine the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan with the 18,000 strong U.S.-commanded combat mission fighting remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
“We are against a merger of the two mandates,” Struck told German radio. “The German government sees its engagement primarily with the … stabilization mandate.”
NATO currently commands the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and it has set up five Provincial Reconstruction Teams in northern Afghanistan. Its troops do not conduct combat missions as U.S. forces do.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, had told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday that the United States wants the two missions combined under an alliance commander, possibly as early as 2005.
“It’s a very complicated issue, how you put these two very different military missions together,” Burns said. “But there will be a number of people who will support — we will certainly support — a direction to the military leaders of the alliance to go and look at this question.”
Burns said he expects the alliance’s military leaders to present answers at a planned February meeting of defense ministers in Nice, France.
Since August 2003, NATO has run a peacekeeping mission in the Afghan capital, Kabul, separate from the U.S. combat mission. In recent months, NATO has expanded the mission into northern provinces in Afghanistan and is now seeking to increase the 8,000 troop force to move into a western sector.
Struck said he backed the drive to get more NATO troops to expand the peacekeeping mission, but he doubted Germany’s parliament would support a change of the mandate to allow the alliance to take on the combat mission.
Germany is one of the largest contributors to the peacekeeping mission, with 2,500 soldiers.
The two-day meeting in this Transylvanian ski resort is the first by NATO ministers in one of the seven East European nations that joined the alliance in April.
The agenda also includes Iraq (news – web sites), where allied nations last week approved an outline plan to send about 300 instructors to train senior commanders of the new Iraqi military.
However, NATO military planners are worried about how to find the specialist instructors needed for the mission. Germany, France, Spain and Belgium already have said they will not send any soldiers to Iraq, and other nations may be reluctant to commit officers to the dangerous and costly operation.
About 40 NATO trainers and support personnel have been in Baghdad since August, but U.S. officials have expressed concern the mission is moving too slowly to have an impact before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for early next year.
The 26 NATO ministers opened their meeting with a debate on how to speed up decision making and modernize their militaries to prevent the delays which have dogged efforts to expand the Afghan mission.
As the Cold War alliance seeks to find a new role in the post-Sept. 11 world, allies are under pressure to modernize their outdated militaries so more European troops can deploy on overseas mission.
“We have less reason for satisfaction with our arrangements for marshaling forces for operations and sustaining them in the field,” NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the meeting.
Central to the modernization, de Hoop Scheffer declared that a new elite force of 17,500 was ready for action to spearhead the alliance response to international emergencies.