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NATO ministers focus on Afghanistan war

NATO members sized up a daunting list of problems including a US push for more soldiers in Afghanistan, friction with Russia about its eastward expansion and lingering uncertainty whether a missile defense system would promote peace or discourage it.

world Updated: Feb 19, 2009 16:12 IST

NATO members sized up a daunting list of problems on Thursday including a US push for more soldiers in Afghanistan, friction with Russia about its eastward expansion and lingering uncertainty whether a missile defense system would promote peace or discourage it.

Heading into the start of the two-day meeting of defense ministers, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had largely given up hope that NATO countries _ many with strong anti-war constituencies at home _ would be willing to commit more troops to Afghanistan.

Instead, Gates said he would stress the need for help later this spring and summer to counter militants and improve security for planned elections there, something NATO officials have already said would require 10,000 reinforcements.

He floated the idea of more nonmilitary expansion, such as training Afghan police and deterring opium growers. "I hope that it may be easier for our allies to do that than significant troop increases," Gates said.

Besides the need to enhance security before this summer's electoral campaign, NATO allies also will be expected to contribute military training teams to work with the Afghan security forces. They will be expected to provide more financial assistance to the cash-strapped government in Kabul and to supply additional military equipment to the Afghan army, which is being expanded from 80,000 to 130,000 troops.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her government would deploy 600 extra troops in the run-up to elections. Germany already has more than 3,500 troops in the NATO-led force. Although Afghanistan is the dominant topic on the crowded agenda of the two-day meeting, ministers were also to tackle issues such as relations with Russia, efforts to streamline the alliance's command structure, and modification of its doctrine to encompass operations such as the anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast. "A lot of NATO countries, including Poland, are convinced that the alliance's strategy needs to be revised," Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said.

In Afghanistan, Taliban guerrillas have made significant gains against the faltering government of President Hamid Karzai over the past two years and now control vast swaths of countryside. This week, Washington announced it would send an extra 17,000 soldiers there to strengthen the 65,000-strong international military presence there.

NATO help is not drying up though. The Czech Republic has provided six Russian-built Mi-17 transport helicopters and another six Mi-26 attack choppers to the nascent Afghan air force. The meeting in Krakow, Poland, coincides with intense diplomatic efforts to secure new supply routes for the NATO forces in landlocked Afghanistan, as an alternative for current corridors through Pakistan which have become increasingly vulnerable to rebel ambushes.

Russia is a key transit route for overland logistics lines, and the new US administration has acted quickly to relieve Bush-era tensions with Moscow sparked by Kosovo's declaration of independence, the Russia-Georgia war and by plans to set up a US missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Western diplomats in Brussels have said that in addition to the overland supply routes, Moscow will be asked to contribute to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan by donating spare parts and weapons to the mainly Russian-equipped Afghan army, and by having the Russian air force fly airlift missions for the international coalition. But Gates warned that Moscow is trying to "have it both ways" by offering to help the allies in Afghanistan, while undermining US efforts there at the same time. Gates specifically pointed to Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic, where parliament voted on Thursday to close a key US air base.