Defense chiefs back NATO plan in Afghanistan


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO's defense ministers reaffirmed yesterday their commitment to have nearly 7,000 troops in southern Afghanistan by the fall despite a spike in violence there that has sparked fears of a Taliban resurgence in the country.

Meeting at the alliance's headquarters for their annual summit, the ministers said they would continue with the deployment and would not be deterred by attacks that have killed eight Canadian and two British soldiers since the move into the south began this spring.

"No one should doubt NATO's commitment to this mission, nor our ability to carry it out," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliance's secretary-general. "Afghanistan is a long-term commitment, and allies are resolved to provide our mission with the military tools to do the job."

Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, here for his first meeting with the defense ministers since assuming the top job a year ago, said he believed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be able to put down the uprising in the south in "one or two months." He said the offensive appeared timed to destabilize the region as alliance troops were arriving.

"There has been an effort by Taliban and their allies to take advantage of this time of transition," he said after a 90-minute discussion with ministers, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "They want to influence public opinion in European capitals."

NATO military officials have raised questions as to whether the surge in violence is solely due to a return of Taliban and al-Qaida-linked forces in the south. Some of the most high-profile violence has occurred in Helmand province, one of Afghanistan's prime poppy-growing regions, and commanders have said some of the attacks may be related to drug trafficking.

But officers also acknowledge that the introduction of NATO forces for the first time in the south, which will double the number of allied soldiers in the region, was a primary factor in stirring anti-coalition activity. Military officials estimate there are about 600 fighters in Helmand, nearly double the figure from six months ago.

"This is now the season that the Taliban get more active, and then it will die down again," Rumsfeld said.

Marine Gen. James L. Jones, the alliance's supreme military commander, said in a recent interview that Taliban-linked forces also might be trying to influence NATO's European members. The British-led deployment to the south, which is largely made up of British, Canadian and Dutch forces, has been controversial in Europe.

"There have been some countries in NATO, in the political decision-making process over whether to join the mission expansion or not, that have had pretty public debate, particularly in Holland," Jones said. "If I were a member of opposing military forces, I probably would have said: 'Hey, I'm kind of encouraged by this. Maybe if we get in there and we raise all kinds of difficulties, we might be able to seed some dissension within the alliance, and some nervousness in capitals.'"

NATO now leads the International Security Assistance Force, a coalition of nearly 10,000 soldiers from 37 countries inside and outside the alliance. There are an additional 23,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

Although violence has been largely limited to southern and eastern provinces that border Pakistan, last month's anti-American rioting in Kabul has raised new concerns that even once-quiet regions of the country may be destabilizing. Afghan officials said this week that 17 Afghans were killed in the rioting.

Rumsfeld and defense ministers from nearly all nations that have sent troops to Afghanistan met with Wardak yesterday morning to discuss the NATO mission. Wardak used the session to steel NATO's resolve, telling ministers they must stay the course to "prevent the re-establishment of a haven for terrorism."

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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