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US Officials Questioned on NATO, Russia-Georgia Tensions

Bush administration officials appearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday were questioned by U.S. lawmakers about a range of issues facing NATO, including steps to expand the alliance, NATO's role in Afghanistan, as well as U.S. and alliance relations with Russia. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress pressed State and Defense Department officials for specifics about what was achieved at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried outlined key points the administration has already cited, including strengthening of NATO's commitment to Afghanistan and Kosovo, and a formal commitment to future membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

On Afghanistan, Fried said while NATO at first had neither adequate appreciation of the challenge nor effective counter-insurgency tactics, the alliance has learned lessons.

He responded this way when European affairs subcommittee chairman Robert Wexler asked him about a statement by Anthony Cordesman, a well-known defense expert, who suggested that NATO claims of progress are far closer to buying time at best, and a slow slide toward failure at worst.

"I don't think it is simply a question of buying time in a slow slide to chaos, to paraphrase [Center for Strategic and International Studies expert Anthony] Cordesman. I would say it is a question of how fast we can learn the lessons and how steep our ramp up will be, and whether that is adequate. I am far more comfortable than I was a year and half ago," Fried said.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy, Dan Fata, says NATO agreed that Euro-Atlantic and broader international security are tied to stability in Afghanistan and its democratic future. Fata pointed to a near doubling of NATO forces in since 2006 when NATO assumed primary responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

But he added that NATO force numbers remain well short of what the U.S. commander believes are needed, and pointed to caveats [conditions] he says continue to stand in the way of how NATO forces can be used. "We have seen an improvement in the number of caveats [coming] down, but again some of the same conditions apply [such as] not the right equipment, not the right training, domestic political concerns, continue to keep caveats there," he said.

Both officials underscored the significance of NATO's formal statement at the Bucharest summit that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members.

But Congressman Wexler questioned why NATO issued the statement without providing Ukraine and Georgia with formal Membership Action Plans or MAP. "In essence, what happened was NATO refused to provide an application, which is the MAP, but they provided acceptance of the application which seems to be a bit illogical," he said.

Fried said NATO's statement grew out of vigorous debate about the timing of the Ukraine and Georgia action plans.

On tensions between Russia and Georgia, Fried said Washington is very concerned about Moscow's steps to establish closer ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, secessionist areas of Georgia. "We regret current and ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia and we hope that Russia will act in conformance with its declared policy of respecting Georgia's territorial integrity and a peaceful solution to these conflicts," he said.

Before talks Wednesday with Georgia's foreign minister Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that she discussed the full range of issues with Russia, adding that the matter must be worked out state to state between Russia and Georgia.

In his testimony on Capitol Hill, Assistant Secretary Fried said NATO will continue to work on narrowing differences with Russia, while addressing such common interests as nonproliferation and counter-terrorism.

However, Fried said NATO will take its own decisions that benefit the alliance and Euro-Atlantic security as a whole.