France and Germany rejected any merger Wednesday of the NATO and U.S-led missions in Afghanistan after Washington urged the alliance to study taking command of all military operations there.
NATO officials and others played down talk of a new rift between countries who clashed over the U.S.-led Iraq war, saying the demand was nothing new and that its aim was simply to improve ties between two forces, which barely cross paths.
But Paris and Berlin made it clear that they would tolerate no step to blend NATO’s current peacekeeping and security duties with the more hazardous tasks of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom force, or OEF, which is engaged in fighting a violent insurgency.
“There are two operations with two different missions — the OEF is fighting terrorism, the [NATO-led] ISAF is an operation of securitization,” French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said at a meeting in Romania of NATO defense chiefs.
“There can be some sense in synergies, but for us a merger of operations has no operational logic,” she said at a news briefing.
German Defense Minister Peter Struck was also opposed and doubted that any such a move would get parliamentary backing in Germany, where public opinion, as in France, has been deeply skeptical of U.S. policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We are against a merger of the two mandates,” Struck told reporters. He said other NATO members backed Berlin’s position, but he did not name them.
Operation Enduring Freedom seeks to crush Taliban and al-Qaida remnants and hunt down fugitives, including Osama bin Laden. About 15,000 of its troops are American, with a further 5,000 made up of contributions from 19 other countries.
NATO has a 9,000-strong International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, focused on peacekeeping and security duties in the capital, Kabul, and the north.
NATO going west
Speaking on the eve of the meeting in the Transylvanian ski resort of Poiana Brazov, the U.S. ambassador to NATO asked the alliance to devise a blueprint by February to assume all operations under its control, possibly as early as next year.
“Obviously, we hope to see, at some point, integration of the NATO effort and Operation Enduring Freedom,” said the ambassador, Nicholas Burns, with NATO taking control of the combined effort.
“It could be 2005. It could be 2006,” he added.
Until now, the merger of forces was seen as a distant goal. But the issue has gained urgency with NATO’s commitment to expand west and then south into more dangerous regions, where it would possibly encounter the U.S.-led operations.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer suggested that one solution would be to have one commander for the whole operation but t maintain two missions — for example, one in a combat role and the other in the nation-building tasks that NATO has been doing.
The U.S. call overshadowed the announcement that a NATO quick-reaction force launched two years ago was up and running with an initial troop strength of 17,500.
The aim of the NATO Response Force, which is to include warships and fighter planes, is to give NATO more clout in reacting to crises around the world within five days. It is due to reach full capacity with 24,000 troops by 2006.