NATO transformation, operations on tap for meeting

WASHINGTON — NATO's continuing transformation and the alliance's operations, particularly in Afghanistan, are among major agenda items for NATO defense ministers when they meet Feb. 9 and 10 in Taormina, Sicily, a senior Defense Department official said here Feb. 7.

The NATO Response Force is the "driving instrument" of the alliance's transformation from a defensive organization to one that is taking on more robust responsibilities in more challenging areas, the official said on background to reporters going with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the meeting. The NRF is "the real-world activity that puts the transformational ideas in play and makes them real," he said.

Rumsfeld and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer are expected to push for more force pledges during the Taormina meetings, the official said. The NRF now numbers about 17,000 troops, according to NATO's Web site, though an official said the number fluctuates due to six-month rotations. NATO's goal is for the NRF to attain full operational capability in October as a 25,000-troop force ready to start to deploy after five days' notice and sustain itself for operations lasting 30 days or longer if resupplied.

Standing up Stage 3 of NATO's International Security Assistance Force operations in Afghanistan also is an important part of NATO's transformation, the official said. Though that effort fell behind schedule as the government and parliament of the Netherlands worked out that nation's level of participation, a "positive decision" last week allows the effort to continue toward a late-summer stand-up of Stage 3, the official said.

ISAF already performs its stabilization mission in northern and western Afghanistan, and Stage 3 calls for the NATO-led force to take responsibility for stability in the more challenging southern region of the country.

"NATO must succeed in Afghanistan in order to feel we have transformed and have turned the corner that we had to turn in creating a robust, expeditionary and sustainable force, a force capable of operating long distances from home sustaining its operations over time," the official said.

Another topic of discussion will be NATO common funding.

"If you step up to a challenge, if you step up to make a contribution, then you [need to] pay for it," the official explained.

"This is difficult for some of the smaller NATO members who don't have the defense budgets or, in fact, the economies to support this kind of thing. So it creates a disincentive — a lot of countries that have the political will to do something, to contribute, to be helpful, may find that they simply can't do it, or that doing it requires them to make inordinate sacrifices and trade-offs between other things, including other things that we'd also like to see them do, such as defense reform and transforming their militaries."

The defense ministers also will discuss ideas for bolstering NATO's "force enablers" such as lift capability, the official said.

"Traditionally, NATO was a defensive alliance and we knew the enemy was going to come to us," he explained. "Now the enemy threat to NATO is further afield. The U.S. has the capability to go to places like Afghanistan. Very few countries have the capability to do that the way we do, and it's important.

"I think there's a consensus that NATO needs to find some additional lift capabilities," he continued, "if not a consensus at this point of how exactly to do that."

A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, the official said, will include discussion of Russia's upcoming participation in NATO's Active Endeavor maritime security operations, in which alliance vessels patrol the Mediterranean Sea, monitoring shipping and providing escorts to nonmilitary vessels through the Straits of Gibraltar to help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity.

The training mission in Iraq and other issues also will be up for discussion in Taormina, the official said.

"Some of the areas we might look at are border guards, special police and military police training — a number of areas where NATO can contribute," the official said.

In addition to the NATO meetings, Rumsfeld will hold individual bilateral meetings with some alliance counterparts.

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