At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Romania on Wednesday, Germany objected to Washington's proposal for NATO forces to take over the US military mission in Afghanistan as part of next year's reorganization efforts.
NATO's mandate is to stabilize Afghanistan not fight terrorism
German Defense Minister Peter Struck, who met NATO counterparts including US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for informal talks in Romania, told reporters he opposed the proposal to integrate the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan within the 18,000 strong US-led combat mission fighting remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
NATO's mandate in Afghanistan is to stabilize the country, not to fight international terrorism he said. "The German government sees its mandate as protecting and helping, not fighting," Struck added. "Therefore, we are against a merger of the two mandates."
Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to NATO, said the aim of the United States is to combine the two missions under a single alliance commander, possibly as early as 2005.
"It's a very complicated issue," Burns said. "That's the direction the alliance has been heading for many months now," he added and hinted to reporters that the proposal would find several supporters in the near future.
New role for NATO?
NATO is in need of a reorganization in Afghanistan, Burns said. The transatlantic alliance has been in command of the 8,000-strong International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since last year, but has struggled to drum up the troop numbers needed to expand the UN-mandated force outside of Kabul.
The alliance's weakness was particularly evident in the run-up to last week's presidential elections when NATO members only reluctantly relented to supplying more troops. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said although the alliance had succeeded in guaranteeing a peaceful election environment, there was still a good deal more to do in Afghanistan.
The United States, which provides the biggest number of troops in the war-torn country, has been pushing its European allies to commit more resources and to expand into western Afghanistan, where war lords and armed factions of the Taliban still hold sway.
German ISAF soldier on patrol in Kabul
While ISAF is primary involved in peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts, the separate US mission "Operation Enduring Freedom" includes heavily armed units fighting suspected militants and terrorists, notably on the Pakistan border in the southeastern part of the country. Several NATO members have criticized the fact that the two forces operate independently of one another.
German support for combat not likely
Struck said Germany generally supported the NATO initiative to increase its troops and expand its area of deployment, but he doubted his country's parliament would support a change of its mandate to allow its troops to take on a combat mission. With some 2,500 soldiers, Germany is the largest contributor to the ISAF peacekeeping mission.
German soldiers in Afghanistan
"I will not accept that Germany continues to be heavily engaged in Afghanistan while others, despite their pledges, have held back from doing the same," Struck told the gathering of 26 defense ministers
"I do not believe that the German government will be prepared to deploy its current 2,500 soldiers in a fight against terrorism. We would prefer to continue using them for reconstruction efforts," he concluded.