NATO role expanding at urging of the U.S.

Posted in NATO | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: The New York Times

We need a strong Alliance
Bush wants alliance, now in Afghanistan, to add Iraqi mission

BRUSSELS - NATO is back.

The much-maligned cold war military alliance lost its mission when its primordial enemy, the Soviet Union, collapsed, and was ridiculed by the Bush administration and rendered impotent by its own division over the American-led war on Iraq.

Only 16 months ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lectured NATO defense ministers in Warsaw that if NATO did not transform itself, "it will not have much to offer the world in the 21st century." Now, the Bush administration is struggling to reduce its military presence and vulnerability in Afghanistan in Iraq. And it is turning to NATO to expand its mandate in Afghanistan and play a substantive role in Iraq. "I believe in NATO," President George W. Bush told Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the new NATO secretary general, when the two met in the Oval Office last month, senior NATO officials said. "I believe NATO is transforming itself and adjusting to meet the true threats of the 21st century." When de Hoop Scheffer pledged to work hard to get NATO to do more in Afghanistan, Bush replied, "I'm with you." And when the conversation turned to Iraq, Bush said, "The more of a NATO role the better."

De Hoop Scheffer, the Bush administration's choice to lead NATO, came home and pitched the new line. At a speech in Brussels on Tuesday, he said that the alliance was willing to deploy in Iraq. "Under the right conditions we could do it," de Hoop Scheffer told the German Marshall Fund's Trans-Atlantic Center. If a sovereign Iraqi government with United Nations backing were to ask for NATO's help, it would be difficult to "abrogate our responsibilities." Until NATO took command of the force that policies Kabul and the area around it, NATO was in the midst of an identity crisis, uncertain of its role, its future and what constituted a military threat in the post 9/11 era. Its role in stabilizing Afghanistan represents NATO's first "out of area" mission beyond Europe; Iraq would be the second. The United States wants NATO to deliver on an ambitious plan to extend its peacekeeping presence outside Kabul and create links with the American-led offensive military operation in the south, which is struggling to rout the remnants of Taliban rule. It also wants NATO to take command of the vulnerable 9,500-strong multinational brigade in central Iraq, which is now run by Poland, and possibly the larger British-led operation in the south. The goal is for NATO to make a headline-grabbing commitment to both missions at the NATO summit meeting in Istanbul, just days before the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis at the end of June and five months before the U.S. presidential election. The problem in expanding NATO into Iraq is that it already has failed to persuade countries to do enough in Afghanistan. In the four months since the UN authorized NATO to expand its peacekeeping mission of about 6,000 outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, the alliance has managed to send only a few hundred troops under German command to the relatively safe northern city of Kunduz. It took months of high-level arm-twisting of NATO members last year to get them to pledge to send desperately needed helicopters to Afghanistan.

George Robertson, the former secretary general, was forced to lobby hard for the helicopters at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels and at every farewell meeting in December, finally getting commitments of three Black Hawk helicopters from Turkey and three or four from the Netherlands. "Lord Robertson had to use everything he had to bludgeon the foreign and defense ministers into committing helicopters," said Robert Bell, a former White House and senior NATO official who is now a private defense consultant in Brussels. "NATO can't operate that way." General James Jones, NATO's top commander in Europe, told a Senate committee last month that Afghanistan was a "defining moment" for the alliance as it adopted a broader global agenda, but then complained that NATO members were not providing enough troops for the country's reconstruction. "The alliance has agreed, the donor countries have been identified, and yet we find ourselves mired in the administrative details of who's going to pay for it, who's going to transport it, how's it going to be maintained," he said. On Wednesday, Jones presented NATO members with a wish list of what it need to enable NATO to deploy in five provincial cities, senior NATO officials said.

De Hoop Scheffer also has acknowledged his failure so far to persuade NATO nations to send more troops to Afghanistan, saying on Tuesday that force protection was a continuing problem. No member of parliament in any NATO country would approve the new request for troops if there was not an answer to the question, "Who will come to the assistance" of the troops "in extreme circumstances," he said. Asked whether the alliance could contemplate moving into Iraq when there was so much to do in Afghanistan, de Hoop Scheffer launched into a long answer about how the mission was possible, and then said that he could not be expected as secretary general "to bang my head on the table and say, 'This has to work.'" On the positive side, France, whose opposition to the war in Iraq damaged its relationship with Washington, sees NATO as a vehicle for projecting its own military and political power and repairing its American ties. In recent weeks, the United States quietly has welcomed two French one-star generals onto the staff of the NATO Response Force, a creation of Rumsfeld's set up to move rapidly in case of crisis. Jones pushed hard for the administration to grant the French request that the two generals be placed, but the issue was so divisive that Bush himself had to made the final decision, according to NATO officials. France has not been part of NATO's military command structure since President Charles de Gaulle, on a campaign to assert France's military autonomy, withdrew from it in the 1960s. But now, with about 2,000 troops in the first rotation of the 6,000-troop Response Force, France is the force's largest troop contributor. France and three other NATO countries - Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg - have also dropped plans announced at a summit meeting in Brussels last April to build a separate European Union military headquarters in Belgium that the United States vehemently opposed as duplicative of NATO and counter to American interests. Instead, last Friday, Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy envoy, unveiled a much more modest - but face-saving - plan to ambassadors of member countries.

A golden opportunity for Bush to patch up differences with both President Jacques Chirac of France and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder will come with the 60th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has recommended that Bush accept Chirac's offer to dine at the Élysée Palace the night before and visit the Normandy beaches together, but Bush had not yet accepted, senior administration and French officials said. Senior American and French officials have said privately in recent weeks that Bush has no choice but to accept, given the historic importance of the event. They also noted that a photo of Bush standing side by side in Normandy with Chirac and Schröder could help deflect charges by Democrats that he has squandered good relations with two of America's most important allies.