NATO defense ministers have begun a two-day meeting at a Romanian ski resort as U.S. officials press the alliance to take on a bigger role in Afghanistan. A U.S. suggestion that NATO prepare itself to take over all military operations in Afghanistan received a wary reaction from Germany.
Before the meeting began, U.S. officials were urging NATO to come up with a plan by February to assume command of the U.S.-led combat mission in Afghanistan in addition to the alliance's own peacekeeping operations.
NATO has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan. After a long delay in coming up with the required personnel and equipment, it has moved out of Kabul and into northern provinces to conduct nation-building activities. The alliance also intends to move into western Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led combat forces, twice the size of the NATO operation, are seeking to pacify Afghanistan's southeastern provinces, where remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida are still fighting.
If NATO were to take over the U.S.-led combat operations, it would relieve the stress on U.S. forces, which are tied down by an insurgency in Iraq.
But Germany, whose troops make up more than one-fourth of NATO's forces in Afghanistan, has objected to merging the peacekeeping and the combat operations.
Under Germany's constitution, the nation's parliament would have to approve the involvement of German troops in combat roles. And German officials say that is not likely to happen.
But NATO officials hope a compromise can be reached. They suggest setting up a unified force under one commander, but split into two operations - one involved in combat and the other in the peacekeeping role already being carried out by NATO.
The main item on the agenda at the opening session was how to get NATO allies to commit more troops and equipment to the alliance's operations as it seeks to find a new role in the post September 11 world.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wants European members to modernize their outdated armies so that more of their troops can deploy on overseas missions.
"But we have less reason for satisfaction with our arrangements for marshaling forces for operations and sustaining them in the field for what are often, unavoidably, extended periods," he said. "We must do more to reinforce the linkage between our political commitments and the resulting operational roles and responsibilities."
General James Jones, the alliance's supreme military commander, says member nations must make good on their pledges.
"I think we need to bring the political decision to execute a mission and the costs of that decision more closely aligned so that nations can understand that, if they sign up to something, it is fair to expect that they will also support that from the standpoint of resources and troops and equipment," he said.
NATO announced that its new, elite rapid reaction force has reached what it calls initial operational capability. The force's goal is to react to crises around the world within five days.
Mr. de Hoop Scheffer called the force's readiness an important milestone in NATO's quest for more deployable forces, but said more needs to be done to complete that quest.