NATO role in training Iraqi Army takes shapeAlliance chief says 3,000 troops may be more than enough
MONS, Belgium NATO's top general says up to 3,000 of its troops could be involved in training the new Iraqi army but insisted that the military alliance would not be used to take over eventually from the U.S.-led multinational forces inside the country.
General James Jones, NATO's commander and the head of U.S. forces in Europe, said in an interview Friday that while no final decision had been reached about the number of troops, 3,000 was “a soft figure" and "it is evolving as we speak.”
The idea of NATO playing a much bigger role than expected in Iraq could reopen old wounds inside the 26-member alliance, which was almost torn apart two years ago because of bitter disagreements over U.S. plans to attack Iraq.
The United States and Britain took the lead in supporting the war, while France and Germany led the anti-war camp. Diplomats at NATO headquarters in Brussels said that the bitterness had dissipated but that the differences remained.
Nevertheless, last month, NATO ambassadors agreed on providing 200 trainers to help rebuild the Iraqi Army, after France had insisted on a clear mandate and timetable that would not extend the alliance's role beyond training.
Despite these conditions, NATO diplomats said there were still fears among some alliance members that any role inside Iraq would set a precedent for deeper engagement.
But Jones, NATO's commander since January 2003 and the first U.S. Marine to head the alliance, tried to play down the number of troops required or the alliance's longer-term role in Iraq. “I tried to put the high end” on the number of troops needed, he said.
"More likely, it will be considerably less,” he said at the alliance's military headquarters in Mons.
Jones dismissed suggestions that the United States was “passing the buck” to NATO.
“All the decisions have been political ones,” he said. “We are proposing what I consider a reasonable concept of operations.
"It consists of training inside and outside the country and setting up a clearinghouse for equipping the Iraqi army.
Around that structure you have to protect it. It is not easy to do. You can't ask the multinational force to do the whole thing.”
The mission will be put together by nations already doing training inside Iraq, he said.
“And some training will come from outside.” Germany, a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, will carry out training in the United Arab Emirates.
Whatever the final number of NATO troops, Jones said he did not believe 3,000 soldiers was a large number given the security considerations and the alliance's military capabilities.
“NATO has enormous capacity. We have 1.5 million in uniform, 2,000 jets and 2,600 helicopters. The capacity is there." How it is put together in Iraq "is really the art form,” he said.
Yet the abundance of military capabilities has not made Jones's task in Afghanistan any easier.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force there has been increased to nearly 10,000 troops from 5,500 in the run-up to the presidential elections on Saturday.
So far, NATO countries have agreed to gradually create Provincial Reconstruction Teams, with a first phase concentrating on the north and a second that would move westward.
The small military and civilian teams are intended to expand the authority of President Hamid Karzai's government beyond the capital, Kabul, by carving out pockets of security in other parts of the country.
The first phase of the operation is complete, but alliance members have been reluctant to offer military capabilities for phase two.
Jones said he was still confident he could obtain the resources for the second phase of the operation, but he expressed frustration with the way the alliance makes decisions and finances its missions.
Too many times, he said, NATO countries make the political decision to participate in a mission, then take a long time to deliver the military capabilities. “We can't keep passing around the tin cup. Once the mission is agreed, we have to do it,” Jones said.
This meant, he said, that countries should know what capabilities were needed before making decisions.
In addition, the system of financing missions "has to be reformed," Jones said. If a NATO country sends troops or equipment abroad, then, in alliance jargon, “costs lie where they fall”: the country is responsible for the costs. That means the countries with the most capabilities end up bearing most of the costs. Jones said that this was unfair and that there should be more common funding.
The most recent example of delays in providing troops and how they should be financed is Kabul International Airport, which is controlled by the alliance.
The Belgian troops that run the airport are due to return home.
No country has offered to replace them. Asked if the problem would be resolved soon, Jones paused, clearly in no mood to pass around the tin cup again. “Unless nations step forward, which they have not, there is a high probability we will wind up outsourcing the airport,” Jones said.