updated 10/12/2004 4:43:50 AM ET 2004-10-12T08:43:50

Struggling to muster more troops for Afghanistan and to take on an expanded training mission in Iraq, NATO defense ministers will aim this week to advance reforms that would let the alliance mobilize faster for far-flung operations.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to take a lead in urging more speed, particularly to get extra European troops into Afghanistan. He will huddle Wednesday and Thursday with the other ministers for NATO’s first meeting in one of the seven eastern European nations that joined the alliance in April.

“NATO, in our view needs to move faster, with a greater degree of commitment and political will to help the Afghan government,” Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO said ahead of the meeting at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

After much prodding, NATO allies reinforced their peacekeeping mission from 6,500 troops to over 9,000 for the Afghan elections held at the weekend. Ministers in this Transylvanian resort are expected to express satisfaction with NATO’ role in ensuring the election was largely peaceful.

However, despite that temporary deployment, the alliance is slipping behind with plans to expand its longer term peacekeeping operation from its current bases in the capital Kabul, and five northern cities, and into the troubled western provinces.

Ministers will also look at the lessons of the presidential elections, in preparation for a follow-up mission for parliamentary polls scheduled for the early next year.

Washington wants to discuss an eventual integration of the NATO peacekeepers with the larger U.S.-led combat force in Afghanistan, but acknowledges substantive debate on that is likely only next year.

Instructors slated for Iraq
On Iraq, the 26 allies agreed last week on the outline of plans to send about 300 instructors — and up to 10 times more guards and support staff — to help train the Iraqi armed forces.

Alliance military experts are aiming to finalize the plans within two weeks, but U.S. officials have already expressed concern that the mission won’t be fully up and running by the new year and are pushing for the allies to move faster.

Looking further ahead, the ministers will review plans to the prevent shortfalls and delays that have dogged the Afghan mission in any future operations now that the alliance has shifted its focus well beyond the defense of Europe from Soviet attack.

The buzzword at alliance headquarters is “usability,” coined by former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. He retired in December bemoaning that only around 4 percent of the 2.5 million Europeans in uniform were available for missions beyond their borders.

At a June summit, NATO leaders set usability targets meant to ensure that allies should be able to have at least 8 percent of their forces on mission at any one time, with a total of 40 percent able to deploy.

“These targets sound modest, but if we could achieve them across allied nations it would make a significant difference to out ability to put forces into the field,” said John Colston, NATO assistant secretary general for defense planning

Response force becoming operational
One way to ensure there’s a bigger pool of ready-and-able troops is the elite NATO Response Force which ministers are to declare operational with a strength of 17,500 — two years after Rumsfeld suggested the idea to his NATO colleagues.

About 550 Italians from the force have deployed to Afghanistan as part of the election support mission, but the spearhead unit does not solve NATO’s problem of finding troops for longer-term peacekeeping missions.

Washington would like to see bigger European defense budgets so allies can shoulder more of the burden of such operations.

Burns pointed out that the U.S. defense budget of $417 billion for the current fiscal year is more than double the combined spending of all the other allies.

“This capabilities gap is very important, it’s very wide, it’s very worrisome,” Burns said Friday. “To have the ability to be an effective peacekeeping organization ... you’ve got to have trained forces and that does cost money.”

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