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NATO Defense Ministers' Meeting Opens - 2003-12-01

NATO defense ministers have opened two days of talks in Brussels under pressure from the organization's secretary-general to provide more troops and equipment for the alliance's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Also on the agenda are plans to reduce NATO forces in Bosnia and a bid by the European Union to create its own military planning unit.

Outgoing NATO Secretary General George Robertson says he worries that, if the allies fail to provide more men and materiel for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, they risk destroying the alliance's credibility.

"We must make our armed forces genuinely deployable and genuinely usable," he said. "And NATO governments must have the political will to deploy and to use these forces in much larger numbers than at present."

Mr. Robertson wants the allies to supply the 5,700-man NATO force in Afghanistan with helicopters. He also wants Special Forces troops and military police deployed to enable the peacekeeping force to expand operations beyond the Afghan capital, Kabul, to as many as six provincial cities.

But the secretary-general says that is still not enough. He wants the allies to commit more regular troops to the alliance's first deployment outside of its traditional Euro-Atlantic theater.

"We must stay the course in Afghanistan, as we did in the Balkans," he said. "If we do not, Afghanistan and its problems will appear on all of our doorsteps."

Mr. Robertson is worried that, if the allies do not beef up their presence in Afghanistan, NATO will be unable to fulfill a pledge it made to the United Nations to provide security for aid groups and elections scheduled to be held next year. If it does not come up with the extra men and equipment, he says, Afghanistan will go back to being a base for international terrorists.

As NATO discusses boosting its presence in Afghanistan, it is also expected to approve a reduction of the NATO force in Bosnia from 12,500 to 7,000 troops. Alliance officials say Bosnia is becoming more stable and, by the end of next year, NATO could hand control of the peacekeeping operation there to the European Union.

EU military ambitions are also being discussed by the ministers. The bloc is determined to boost its ability to mount its own military operations. The United States opposes any move by the EU to set up its own military planning unit independent of NATO. Britain hopes a deal struck over the past two days by EU foreign ministers to create a European planning unit at NATO military headquarters will calm U.S. concerns.