Afghanistan looms large as NATO looks to future

5th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

The conflict is set to dominate the agenda at its upcoming meeting.

Brussels -- The worries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan look set to dominate the agenda on Thursday and Friday when the alliance's defence ministers meet in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

The meeting is intended to pave the way for a summit of NATO's political leaders in Bucharest on April 2-4. As such, it is expected to cover a wide range of issues for future work, from missile defence and helicopter sharing to cyber-warfare and media relations.

During their day and a half of talks, ministers are also set to meet with their counterparts from Ukraine and Russia, as well as from countries working alongside NATO in Afghanistan and Kosovo.

But it is Afghanistan which is likely to be the centre of attention, with member states at loggerheads over the commitment each one is making to the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the country.

On January 29, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened that Canada would pull out of its current mission in the southern province of Kandahar - the main centre of fighting - unless other NATO members sent 1,000 extra troops into the area.

Canada's 2,500 troops have endured fierce fighting, with 78 soldiers and one diplomat killed since they joined ISAF in 2002.

As far back as November 2006, Harper called on other member states to commit more troops to the area, and allow those troops currently in Afghanistan to deploy to the more dangerous south.

Just days after Harper's most recent warning, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrote to all NATO's members, also urging them to strengthen their forces in the south.

The US has by far the largest contingent of combat troops in ISAF, with over 15,000 out of a total force of 41,700, but recently pledged to send 3,200 more.

Germany, which has 3,100 troops in Afghanistan, rejected Gates' call. Its troops are currently only permitted to render "emergency assistance" to forces in the south.

Despite the public debate, however, diplomats insist that the Vilnius meeting is not a so-called "force generation meeting" at which member states will be expected to pledge more troops.

Indeed, on Monday, a spokesman for NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the place for such discussions should be behind closed doors, rather than via public statements.

And ministers in Vilnius are likely to try and keep the focus of the meeting on matters on which they can agree, ahead of the summit in Bucharest.

Kosovo is likely to be one such issue, with ministers set to discuss NATO's preparations for any potential trouble should Kosovo go ahead with plans to declare independence in the spring.

Transport is another, with ministers set to discuss how they can make sure that future NATO missions have sufficient helicopters and transport aircraft to move their troops as necessary - a problem which has long bedevilled the ISAF mission.

The ministers are also likely to begin talks on how to deal with internet-based "cyber warfare" - a topic which leapt up the security agenda in April, after hackers apparently using Russian government servers attacked government websites in NATO member Estonia.

One item which they are not expected to cover is enlargement. Three countries - Croatia, Albania and Macedonia - are currently candidates for NATO membership, but NATO ministers are not expected to hold formal talks on their progress until March.

However, relations with Ukraine and Russia are set to feature, as NATO members hold a first meeting with Ukraine's new defence minister and continue talks with Russia's minister on issues such as missile defence, security cooperation and Kosovo.

DPA with Expatica

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