NATO defense ministers meet for two-day talks in Berlin starting Tuesday, with the alliance's role in Afghanistan a focus. Germany remains opposed to US desires to merge NATO peacekeepers and the US-led coalition there.
Defense Minister Peter Struck visiting German ISAF troops
Defense ministers from the 26-nation military body will look at a range of issues, including the alliances own development over the next decade, forces in Iraq and in the Balkans and the situation in Sudan. But Afghanistan will probably provide the most substantial item on the menu, ahead of the country's first parliamentary elections in 30 years on Saturday.
NATO, in charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, has beefed up its troop levels in the run-up to the ballots, which has seen a surge in violence across the country.
German armored vehicles from ISAF
At the informal talks in Berlin, which are being held under tight security, the ministers will discuss the planned extension of ISAF into the south of the country early next year, in the latest stage of its expansion around the country after starting in the capital Kabul.
Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are to lead the move into the south, joining some 18,000 US soldiers who have long been fighting al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, in particular along the eastern border with Pakistan.
Washington is eager to see ISAF active across the whole country by the end of 2006 -- and also has expressed interest in merging or, at a minimum, increasing cooperation between its own Operation Enduring Freedom troops (OEF) and the NATO-led force.
That push faces strong reservations from some European allies -- notably from Germany, France and Turkey who oppose a full merger, fearing that it would turn peacekeepers into targets for the opponents of the Kabul government under Hamid Karsai. The OEF force now bears the brunt of the insurgency.
In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Monday, German Defense Minister Peter Struck that the answer from Germany would be a "clear no."
German Defense Minister Peter Struck
"That would make the situation for our soldiers doubly dangerous and worsen the current climate in Afghanistan," he said, ahead of the two-day meeting.
In an interview with DW-TV, Struck said that the Taliban were fighting "the last fight in the truest sense of the word" to destabilize elections on Sept. 18th, although he added that there was no reason to fear that large attacks are being planned in the north were some German ISAF forces are stationed.
Stronger political outlook
Struck also said he wanted the alliance to adopt a more political orientation when tackling security issues.
"The signal from Berlin should be that NATO will respond to new threats not only militarily, but politically as well," he said in the run-up to the meeting, adding that it would mean defense ministers have a stronger influence on decisions made by foreign ministers.
In the longer term, the NATO ministers will seek to focus on what the alliance -- whose operations have spread over the last year into Iraq and Sudan -- should look like in 2015-2020.
On Wednesday the West's former military bloc will meet with their Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov, for regular talks which increasingly focus on the fight against terrorism.