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NATO mulls joint Afghan command amid reports of US troop cutback

AFP| September 14, 2005

NATO defense ministers resumed talks Wednesday on bringing NATO and US forces in Afghanistan under a single overarching command amid a report that the United States is considering a sharp reduction in its forces there.

British Defense Secretary John Reid said he had discussed plans to draw the two missions under a single command with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld here Tuesday but would not comment on the reported US cutback.

The New York Times said the US military is considering reducing the size of its roughly 20,000-strong force in Afghanistan by as much as 20 percent in the spring of 2006.

"It makes sense that as NATO forces go in, and they're more in numbers, that we could drop some of the US requirements somewhat," General John Abizaid, the head the US Central Command, told the newspaper.

Meeting here informally, NATO defense ministers are discussing plans to expand the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into southern Afghanistan by mid-2006.

Reid said the ministers are discussing a NATO plan to bring ISAF and the US-led counter-insurgency force under a single commander as part of an effort to bring greater synergy to the effort in Afghanistan.

He said Britain was "entirely supportive" of the plan although he acknowledged that there is not yet a consensus within NATO.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told reporters Tuesday that the two forces should remain separate because they have different missions.

"We can improve the synergy but these two missions (ISAF and OEF) must remain separate," she said.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck, however, indicated that Germany would support a formula of "one roof and two pillars."

Extending ISAF's presence into the more volatile southern region, which includes Kandahar and Helmand provinces, will require expanding the size of the 8,000-strong force but that was still under discussion, Reid said.

"We want to make sure that force has sufficient capability and size to counter terrorism and to counter narcotics in Helmand," said Reid, whose country will head the NATO Rapid Reaction Corps in Afghanistan next year.

Speaking of the idea of a joint US-NATO command, he said it was a "sensible proposition" that would give the Afghan government a single point of contact with international forces.

"But it isn't something that will happen overnight and without discussion. and this is precisely the sort of discussion that is going on just now," he said.

Rumsfeld told reporters Tuesday that at some point Washington expects NATO to take over capabilities across the country, including the more violence-wracked east.

"It would be nice if NATO developed counter-terrorism capabilities which don't exist at the present time as a NATO function," he said. "That would most likely be the last piece that they would take."

German Defense Minister Peter Struck, speaking after the first day's talks, insisted there was "no contradiction" between Rumsfeld's comments and Germany's commitment to help fighting terror.

But German officials also underlined Berlin's opposition to a full merger of ISAF with the US-led force.

"ISAF should not be dragged into the fight against terrorism," said one German official, adding that Berlin had support from France, Turkey and the Netherlands on that point.

A NATO spokesman noted that next weekend's elections mark a key point in Afghanistan, as it draws to the end of a framework set out by world leaders after the ousting of the Taliban following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"We need a ... new road map for how the international community can work together in support of the Afghan government," he said, while stressing that no formal decisions were expected at the Berlin talks.


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