American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says NATO's plan to take over security operations in southern Afghanistan, later this year, will not necessarily mean a reduction in U.S. troop strength in the country. Rumsfeld spoke to reporters on his American Air Force plane, enroute to a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Taormina, Italy.
Secretary Rumsfeld says, even though NATO will soon have responsibility for most of Afghanistan and plans to add the remaining region in the east, its troops only maintain security and build local capacity. They do not handle active counter-insurgency operations.
"Technically, that would not say they would take over everything because the counter-terrorism activity has never been, to my knowledge, discussed as a role for NATO," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld says that job is done by the American-led coalition, which includes several other NATO countries.
And, although he welcomed NATO's growing role in Afghanistan, the secretary said there are many factors that will go into any decision about American troop strength in the country. He says those factors include NATO's role, but also the development of the Afghan army and political process and the demobilization of militias.
"I wouldn't tie it to that. It's a combination of all those elements and not the one," he said.
The secretary noted that U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already been reduced by one third.
As he prepared to meet with the other 25 NATO defense ministers, plus their Russian counterpart and ministers from seven NATO partner states from around the Mediterranean, Secretary Rumsfeld praised the organization's evolution in recent years. He noted that it has moved beyond its traditional defensive posture in Europe and has taken an active role elsewhere in the world. He mentioned plans for the NATO rapid reaction force as an example. That force is to have final exercises in June and become operational in October. But U.S. officials say member nations have only contributed about 80 per cent of the force's required resources.
Secretary Rumsfeld said he would also like to see NATO get involved in global peacekeeping and helping develop military capabilities in partner nations.
"I think there are other things NATO could do. And, I suspect, if we transported ourselves out five or ten years and looked back, I think we'd find that in fact NATO will be doing some of those things, to a greater extent than they are today," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld will spend two days at the NATO meeting in Sicily, where, he says he will also urge member states to increase their defense spending to help provide forces for the organization's new initiatives.