NATO Eyes Afghan Handover In 2008 - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

11/28/06-RIGA, Latvia

NATO Eyes Afghan Handover In 2008

US President George W. Bush and Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves US President George W. Bush and Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

 NATO's military operation in Afghanistan will succeed, the alliance's chief said Tuesday, urging member countries not to lose heart despite a strengthening Taliban insurgency and unexpectedly high casualties.

Speaking to a forum before a two-day summit, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insisted the alliance will prevail in its first mission outside Europe. He also expressed hoped that by 2008, Afghan forces could begin taking over security tasks.

"I would hope that by 2008, we'll have made considerable progress ... (with) effective and trusted Afghan security forces gradually taking control," he said.

Although De Hoop Scheffer predicted that by 2008, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also will be able to reduce its presence in Kosovo, where about 17,000 peacekeepers are deployed, he said he could not yet envisage drawing down in Afghanistan.

"Our exit strategy will depend on Afghanistan having its own security forces," he said, adding that NATO would launch a training program for the Afghan army.

"Afghanistan is 'mission possible,"' he said. "We need to be frank about the risks, but we also need to avoid overdramatizing. NATO has been in Afghanistan for three years -- time enough to know what it takes to succeed."

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in neighboring Estonia, urged NATO nations to provide the forces required by the alliance's commanders in Afghanistan.

Making a stop on his way to the Latvia summit -- his first meeting with European allies since the Democratic triumph in the U.S. midterm congressional elections -- Bush said the 26 NATO allies must be ready to face difficult challenges in Afghanistan.

The dangers to the NATO force were underscored by recent attacks that have shattered a period of relative calm. Two Canadian soldiers were reported slain by a suicide car bomber Monday. A day earlier, a suicide bomber killed 15 Afghans in a restaurant.

De Hoop Scheffer also called for sweeping reforms to transform NATO into "a major strategic tool for coping with 21st century challenges."

"There are still too many messages of the Cold War in the way that NATO is structured," he said. "Partnerships with nations around the world ... hold much potential. The decisions I expect from our summit here should help us unlock this potential."

At the summit, NATO leaders also planned to explore the possibility of forging closer ties with their Pacific allies.

The alliance also was expected to reaffirm its "open-door policy," reiterating that Croatia, Macedonia and Albania can join when they fulfill all the requirements -- but it will not give a precise entry date.

NATO's emerging new role as a guarantor of peace in global hotspots will be discussed at the summit of 26 presidents and prime ministers, the first such gathering on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Latvia broke away from the Soviet sphere in 1991 and joined NATO in 2004.

Russia is an "important and privileged partner," de Hoop Scheffer said, adding that NATO's relations with Moscow must be "rejuvenated."

France and Italy seem to have heeded de Hoop Scheffer's calls to remove blanket restrictions or "caveats" on the movement of their troops in Afghanistan and allow soldiers to provide emergency support to allied units anywhere in the country.

Although all 26 allies have troops in the 32,800-strong force, Britain, Canada, the United States and others in the front line of the battle in the Taliban's southern heartland have complained that Germany, Italy, Spain and France are keeping their troops in the more peaceful north and west.

"Other NATO nations have troops there, but have imposed caveats on the use of them and on the use of their equipment -- this at a time when NATO's commanders on the ground urgently require additional manpower," said Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

"NATO cannot afford to lose this crucial struggle against the regressive forces of a resurgent insurgency by being indecisive or lacking commitment," she said.

France is preparing to assume an expanded role in the Afghan mission, and officials said President Jacques Chirac will propose forming a contact group on Afghanistan to ensure that a global strategy guides NATO action in the country.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to remind leaders that NATO has a significant role to play in rebuilding the country.

"His message essentially will be, first of all, that Afghanistan wants to know that NATO is there for the long haul," Blair's official spokesman said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

Italy is expected to announce the lifting of restrictions in extreme circumstances. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said that while her country's units will remain based in the north, they could be sent for short-term, emergency missions elsewhere in the country.

In an open letter Tuesday to de Hoop Scheffer, Human Rights Watch urged NATO to focus not only on defeating Taliban forces but deal with "the other sources of insecurity bedeviling millions of Afghans, such as illegal armed groups and regional warlords."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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