NATO defense talks likely to focus on Afghanistan, Turkey

The mounting tension on Turkey’s border with Iraq and U.S. demands for European allies to do more in Afghanistan are expected to dominate a meeting of NATO defense ministers opening Wednesday in the Netherlands.

Although not on the official agenda, the situation on Turkey’s southeastern frontier risks overshadowing the two-day gathering.

Turkey’s NATO allies have expressed solidarity following a surge in attacks by Kurdish rebels, but have also urged restraint as the Turks consider retaliatory attacks on Kurdish bases over the border in Iraq.

The NATO meeting comes amid intense diplomatic efforts to avert a Turkish offensive, which Western nations fear could destabilize one of the most stable parts of Iraq. Turkey on Tuesday rejected a rebel cease-fire offer and massed troops on the border with Iraq.

On Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will push European allies to deploy more troops, putting the focus on military training teams that allied commanders see as vital to an eventual exit strategy for international forces.
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Gates is also expected to seek helicopters, transport planes and quick maneuver troops to fill shortfalls in NATO’s 40,000-strong Afghan force during the talks in the North Sea resort of Noordwijk.

Gates criticized some European members of NATO on Monday for failing to provide the extra troops that their governments promised last year for the force.

“I am not satisfied that an alliance whose members have over 2 million soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed for Afghanistan,” Gates said Monday during a visit to Ukraine.

As part of efforts to fill gaps, ministers will consider a plan to lease transport helicopters from private companies — possibly from Ukraine or Russia. To allay safety fears, diplomats say the leased aircraft would be used only to carry equipment and supplies, freeing up NATO’s military choppers to transport troops.

The U.S. wants allies to more than double the approximately 20 teams of embedded trainers serving with Afghan army units. NATO commanders say such teams are key to preparing local forces to gradually take over from international forces — although they believe it could be five to 10 years before Afghan troops can operate independently without U.S. and NATO support.

Russia’s defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, will join the NATO talks on Thursday when differences over Kosovo and proposed U.S. anti-missile bases in Eastern Europe are expected to loom large.

U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday that plans for a U.S.-led missile defense system in Europe are urgently needed to counter an emerging threat of attack by Iran. “The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it’s urgent,” Bush said in Washington.

However, in an apparent attempt to placate Russian opposition, Gates told a news conference in the Czech Republic that the administration might delay activating the proposed missile defense sites until it has “definitive proof” of a missile threat from Iran.

Allies are expected to pledge to maintain NATO’s 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo at full strength over the coming months as the province threatens to defy Serbian opposition and declare independence before the end of the year.

The U.S. recently committed to keeping its 1,600 troops in Kosovo until at least the middle of next year. After that, Washington has warned European allies that it may have to redeploy its soldiers from Kosovo to fill any lingering shortfalls in Afghanistan.

For the first time, officials from the United Nations, European Union and World Bank will join NATO defense ministers as part of the alliance’s drive to coordinate the Afghan security mission with civilian reconstruction and good governance efforts. Defense ministers from Afghanistan and senior officials from non-NATO nations with troops in the mission, such as Croatia or Australia, are also due to attend.

Reports that civilians may have been killed in airstrikes called in by NATO and Afghan troops battling with insurgents Tuesday is likely to renew debate about tactics in Afghanistan, were critics have said the shortage of ground troops means the alliance is forced to rely too heavily on air power.

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