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NATO Chief Calls for Strengthened Mission in Afghanistan

NATO defense ministers are trying to plug gaps in troops and equipment among the alliance's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, as part of a plan to expand the force's operational theater beyond the capital, Kabul. The ministers also agreed to reduce the NATO contingent in Bosnia and sought to avoid tension over a European Union plan to mount its own military operations.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson says the alliance is close to filling shortfalls in helicopters, intelligence assets and other resources NATO needs to expand its 5,700-man force in Afghanistan beyond the capital, Kabul, into as many as six provincial cities in the months ahead.

The failure of NATO members to provide enough troops and equipment to the so-called international security assistance force, or ISAF, has embarrassed the alliance and "threatened its credibility" as it seeks to bring lawless areas beyond the capital under control.

Mr. Robertson announced that allies Monday had offered six helicopters for the force, which now has only three. But he says he is optimistic he can persuade the allies to do more.

"I am optimistic that not only will we be able to plug the existing shortfalls but that we should be able to make available the resources that will allow ISAF to go outside of the capital of Afghanistan," he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he is confident NATO will secure the extra resources it needs to expand its Afghan operation.

European defense ministers tried to reassure Mr. Rumsfeld that a plan agreed to by European Union foreign ministers over the past two days for the Union to plan its own military operations will not undermine NATO.

Mr. Rumsfeld says he is confident the EU's plan will neither compete with nor duplicate NATO capabilities. And Mr. Robertson, who warned earlier on Monday that the EU should not try to rival NATO, told reporters he believes the Union will take no action that would undercut the alliance.

"Everybody has made it absolutely clear that they are not going to do anything that would undermine NATO, and I can't imagine anything being agreed by Prime Minister Blair in London that would undermine the integrity and the strength and the preeminence of NATO as a security organization of first choice," he said.

Diplomats say Britain has struck a deal with France and Germany whereby the EU will set up its own planning cell at NATO military headquarters that will be tasked with organizing operations in which NATO as a whole does not want to get involved.