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NATO Close to Expanding Afghan Force

NATO officials meeting in Berlin voiced confidence Wednesday that they can overcome differences over expanding forces in Afghanistan. The US downplayed a report it is mulling a sharp reduction in its own troops there.

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Rumsfeld on reductions: "You're chasing the wrong rabbit"

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, speaking after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, said he expects an agreement next month on closer cooperation between NATO peacekeepers and US-led combat operations in the violence-wracked country.

"After the discussion this morning I know that we will be in a position to make a decision," he said.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld meanwhile dismissed reported strains as "much ado about nothing" while rebuffing a New York Times report suggesting that Washington could be set to cut 20 percent of its troops in Afghanistan.

"You're just chasing the wrong rabbit, frankly," he said. "If and when there is any decision to reduce forces I will announce it. In the meantime you're going to see all kinds of people looking at all different kinds of scenarios."

Rumsfeld had to cut short a press conference in order to catch a flight out of Berlin before the airport was closed to detonate a World War II bomb that had been found in the military part of Tegel airport Wednesday morning.

ISAF vs. OEF

ISAF Soldaten aus Deutschland in Afghanistan

German ISAF soldiers in Kabul

On the second and last day of their informal talks, the NATO ministers discussed plans to expand the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into southern Afghanistan by the middle of next year.

The organization is also trying to increase cooperation with the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which is involved in frontline combat with Taliban fighters in the more volatile south and east of the country.

But a US-led push for much closer ties has run into reservations from European allies, notably Germany, France and Turkey, which have rejected any question of a full merger between ISAF and OEF.

O n e roof, two pillars?

After the Berlin talks, however, NATO officials said that the issue was all but resolved, based on military proposals for an overall NATO command leading two separate missions, one peacekeeping and the other combat.

"We are very close to an agreement," said one official, requesting anonymity.

NATO Verteidigungsminister in Berlin Gruppenfoto

NATO defense ministers stand for a group photo during the meeting

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told reporters Tuesday that the two forces should remain separate because they have different missions.

"We can improve the synergy but these two missions must remain separate," she said.

But in what NATO officials said was a sign of flexibility, German Defense Minister Peter Struck indicated that Germany would support a formula of "one roof and two pillars."

Afgha n electio n s a key poi n t

Wahl 2005 in Afghanistan: Wahlhelferin registriert eine Frau aus Kabul

A woman registers to vote in the Sept. 18 parliamentary election in Afghanistan

A NATO spokesman noted that the Afghan elections mark a key point for the country, as it draws to the end of a framework set out by world leaders after the ousting of the Taliban following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

"We need a ... new road map for how the international community can work together in support of the Afghan government," he said, while stressing that no formal decisions were expected at the Berlin talks.

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