NATO stresses commitment to Afghanistan

(Associated Press) - NATO leaders pledged at the end of a summit Wednesday to stay the course in Afghanistan despite mounting casualties and some governments' refusal to send troops into combat in the most dangerous regions, reports Trend.

Leaders also declared that a new 25,000-member rapid response force designed as the spearhead of a modernized NATO military is ready for action after four years of preparation.

"We reconfirm the strong stability of our alliance and pledge that (the NATO force in Afghanistan) has the forces, resources and flexibility needed to ensure the mission's continued success," the summit's final communique said.

They also invited old enemy Serbia along with its neighbors Bosnia and Montenegro to join an alliance cooperation program designed to prepare them for eventual membership.

NATO officials said they received assurances that all would allow their troops in the 32,800-strong force in Afghanistan to aid allied units in trouble anywhere in the country and would relax "caveats" that restrict the role of some contingents.

"There is not the slightest reason to voice gloom and doom over Afghanistan," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said, noting that the alliance's work will allow the country to rebuild.

The mission "is winnable, it is being won, but not yet won," he said.

Officials said at least three nations had offered to send more troops.

President Jacques Chirac said France planned to send more helicopters and warplanes. French officials said he would also allow French troops to operate beyond their base in Kabul, the Afghan capital, when needed.

"There should be no doubt on our common determination to make a success of this mission," French officials quoted Chirac as telling the meeting. "In support and solidarity with our allies, France has decided to strengthen its contingent."

However, beyond emergency missions, officials said France, Germany, Italy and Spain would not be sending troops to fight alongside the British, Canadian, Dutch and American forces on the front lines of the battle with the resurgent Taliban in the south and east.

"This has been our clear position from the beginning," Italian Premier Romano Prodi told journalists after the dinner late Tuesday. "That also goes for the French president, the German chancellor and the Spanish."

Nations with troops in the south and east have raised concern that such limits on troop deployment risks undermining alliance solidarity and public support for the mission, while only some allies are taking most casualties.

"Losing young men and women is the surest way that can happen," Canada's Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said. Progress "can still be eroded ... if you have people coming home in coffins."

Forty-four Canadians have died in Afghanistan 36 this year alone. Most occurred after NATO troops moved into the south this summer.

Underscoring the dangers, two more NATO soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday in Logar province south of Kabul. NATO did not immediately release the nationalities of the dead. The leaders started their formal session with a minute of silence to honor soldiers killed in NATO missions.

U.S.President George W. Bush said Tuesday that "Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation."

Bush also raised the pressure on allies to ease restrictions on what their troops can do in Afghanistan.

NATO officials said the leaders agreed on the need to quickly follow up military operations in Afghanistan with development aid and help to the Afghan government to build up the local police and judiciary, along with roads, hospitals and schools. They agreed to coordinate more closely with the European Union, United Nations and the Afghan authorities by setting up a "contact group" to dovetail civilian and military operations.

The leaders also committed to boosting training and equipment supplies to the Afghan army in the hope that stronger local forces could eventually allow NATO to start pulling out.

They approved a document giving political guidance for military planning over the next 10 years. It calls for more flexible forces able to tackle a range of concurrent missions.

"Terrorism, increasingly global in scope and lethal in results, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction are likely to be the principal threats," it says. "The alliance will require the agility and flexibility to respond to complex and unpredictable challenges, which may emanate far from member states' borders."

Three other Balkan nations Croatia, Macedonia and Albania were given a clearer signal that they could be allowed to join the alliance at the next NATO summit in 2008.

The allies also agreed to increased NATO training for officers from Arab nations and to development of a "global partnership" with Australia, Japan and other Asia-Pacific democracies.

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