NATO foreign ministers were close to approving military plans Thursday to send up to 6,000 troops into southern Afghanistan, a major expansion of the alliance's peacekeeping mission into some of the most dangerous parts of the country. The deployment next year of mostly European and Canadian troops will free up U.S. forces to focus on counterinsurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan's volatile south and east. It should allow the United States to scale back its about 18,000-strong military presence almost five years after it invaded the country following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The Pentagon, however, has yet to say how many troops it will withdraw.
The plans give the NATO peacekeepers a stronger self-defense mandate, guarantee support from U.S. combat troops if they face a serious attack and set out rules for handling detainees, all issues which have concerned some European allies mulling participation in the expanded force.
NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appealed for other international organizations to match the alliance's commitment to Afghanistan's security by doing more to help rebuild the country's economy. "We are committed to stay the course," he told ministers. "But we are not working in a void there. Other international actors should stay equally committed."
The European Union, the United Nations and the G-8 group of the world's economic powers should join NATO at a conference planned for late January in London to relaunch development efforts, de Hoop Scheffer's spokesman, James Appathurai said . "The alliance cannot do everything," Appathurai told a news conference.
At an opening dinner Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was grilled by allies over the allegations that the CIA mistreated terrorist suspects in secret prisons and flew detainees around Europe on clandestine flights. She appeared to ease some European concerns.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Rice has assured them the U.S. administration does not interpret international humanitarian law differently from allied governments in Canada and Europe. His Dutch counterpart Ben Bot told reporters he was "very satisfied" with Rice's explaination. Rice has defended U.S. detention policy during her trip to Europe this week, but declined to directly answer questions on specific secret prison allegations.
The expansion of the Afghan mission will take NATO's peacekeeping mission to about 16,000 and make it responsible for security in about three-quarters of the country. The separate U.S.-led combat force will keep the lead role in the eastern sector where Taliban holdouts have been most active. NATO's plan also sets out closer cooperation with the U.S.-led mission by appointing an officer who will serve jointly as the peacekeepers' deputy commander for security and chief of combat missions for the U.S. force, reports the AP. N.U.