Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

NATO to feel heat on Afghanistan at Istanbul conference

AFP , BRUSSELS

NATO leaders head for Istanbul next week hoping to avoid new splits over Iraq, amid simmering discord over calls for it to play a larger role there at a time when it is already stretched in Afghanistan.

US-led pressure for the Alliance to do more in Iraq comes as it battles to meet its commitments to extend a peacekeeping force beyond the Afghan capital Kabul, to help secure the country ahead of planned September elections.

In Istanbul next Monday and Tuesday, NATO is expected to declare itself ready to fulfill those pledges -- specifically to set up five Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in northern Afghanistan, as well as sending reinforcements for the polls.

But the battle to secure the resources from NATO member states has been painfully difficult, a process which risks compromising the credibility of an Alliance seeking to present itself as a key force in the global war on terror.

NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan last August, in its first-ever mission outside Europe, and was given the green light by the UN a short time later to extend it outside Kabul.

Eight months later, it is in charge of only one PRT, in the northern city of Kunduz, run by the German army.

"Whenever we enter into a political commitment to undertake an operation, we must have a clear idea beforehand as to what forces we have available to honor this commitment," NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in London last Friday.

On Iraq, NATO has never really recovered from its divisions in the run-up to last year's war -- when it was plunged into the most serious crisis in its 55-year history amid a split between pro- and anti-war factions.

Sixteen months after that crisis, the US is pushing for NATO to take on a bigger role than its current one of providing logistical support to Poland in running its sector of a stabilization force.

But France and Germany -- which sparked the the crisis in February last year -- are again resisting the call.

To add to the potential for rifts, the Istanbul summit comes two days before the June 30 handover of sovereignty from the US-led occupation force to an interim Iraqi government.

With Paris and Berlin blocking any suggestion of NATO troops on the ground, one key option under consideration is for the Alliance to help train Iraqi troops. Officials stress this would only be possible if Iraq requested it.

Decisions expected at the Istanbul summit include the formal end to the NATO-led SFOR mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which will be handed over to the EU at the end of the year.

NATO will also trumpet a new strategy of strengthening cooperation with Muslim states around the Mediterranean basin, although leaders of these countries will not be in Istanbul.

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