US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the US would maintain a forceful military presence in Afghanistan despite pressure to free up forces stretched by the insurgency in Iraq. European allies rejected his suggestion that NATO take on counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
"US forces will of course continue to play a strong role," Rumsfeld said after a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Wednesday.
Rumsfeld said he was satisfied with plans by NATO allies to expand its 11,000-strong Afghan peacekeeping mission next year with more European and Canadian troops, a move that could free up thousands of US soldiers.
But Germany and France made clear that they would not allow the NATO force to become embroiled in offensive combat, leaving the separate, US-dominated coalition force of 19,000 to pursue the counterinsurgency against Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts.
They also opposed talk of merging the two operations, although NATO officials said they expected agreement on a proposal to bring the two missions under a single commander.
Rumsfeld spoke amid speculation that the US is planning major reductions of its 18,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan as NATO expands. The New York Times and the Washington Post reported in yesterday's editions that the Bush administration was considering cutting troop strength there by as much as 20 percent by early next year.
He declined further comments.
"If and when there's any decision to decrease forces, I will announce it," he said tersely.
NATO diplomats have suggested that the US could reduce its contribution to multinational military operations in Afghanistan from over half to about a quarter. Rumsfeld on Tuesday suggested NATO will eventually be able to take over counterterrorism operations there.
"Over time it would be nice if NATO would develop counterterrorist capabilities which don't exist at the current time," he said. "That probably will be the last piece they take."
He acknowledged it will be a difficult task and did not suggest a timetable. Germany, France and other allies have sent combat forces to serve with the US-led mission known as Operation Enduring Freedom, since it was launched to topple the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Paris and Berlin do not want NATO's International Security Assistance Force running combat operations against Taliban insurgents. They fear that would undermine NATO's peacekeeping role, and make its soldiers more likely to face attack.
"I would not like to expose our soldiers to an additional risk by joining these two mandates together," German Defense Minister Peter Struck said in a radio interview.
The issue has been sensitive in Germany, where the Social Democratic government faces parliamentary elections Sunday.
Spain's Socialist government -- which withdrew forces from Iraq after winning elections last year -- also cautioned against linking NATO's peacekeepers with the combat operation.
"They should coordinate their forces, but I'm not in favor of fusing the two missions," Defense Minister Jose Bono said.
Despite the differences, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said allies were close to an agreement to bring the two forces under a single NATO commander.
"There is a shared view among NATO defense ministers that we need a greater synergy between the two missions," de Hoop Scheffer told reporters.
Under NATO's planned expansion in Afghanistan next year, the alliance will take over peacekeeping in the southern sector with Britain taking a lead role, backed by Canada and the Netherlands. Britain, which takes overall command of the NATO mission in May, said the force must intensify action against Afghanistan's drugs barons.
"They have to be defeated, they have to be destroyed," British Defense Minister John Reid said. "We have to be prepared to use military means to combat insurgency or tackle the narcotics trade."
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