Afghanistan to dominate agenda of NATO defense ministers’ meeting

By Xinhua,

Brussels : NATO defense ministers will meet in the Hungarian capital of Budapest on Thursday and Friday to discuss primarily the NATO-led operations in Afghanistan amid doubts over the alliance’s counter-insurgency strategy in the war-torn country.

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The ministers’ informal meeting is overshadowed by comments of a high-ranking British officer over the weekend that the war with the Taliban cannot be won. At the same time, the Afghan government is showing willingness to talk to the Taliban, seven years after the U.S.-led war ousted the fundamentalist movement.

Britain’s military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times that a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable.”

He believed that the correct strategy was to contain the insurgency to a level where it is not a strategic threat to the longevity of the elected Afghan government.

Britain’s ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and UN envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, echoed the remarks of the British commander.

In response, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Tuesday that Carleton-Smith’s comments might be “unfortunate use of words,” which should not be over-dramatized.

But he argued that a military role is essential although the solution to Afghanistan cannot be exclusively military.

The NATO defense ministers are expected to discuss ways to fill the shortfalls in Afghanistan, said Appathurai.

Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has now 50,700 troops in Afghanistan in addition to several thousand coalition forces engaged in counter-terrorism operations, the alliance finds itself in increasing demand of equipment and personnel in face of the resilient Taliban.

With plans to almost double the size of the Afghan National Army, the alliance also needs more trainers, said Appathurai in a briefing prior to the Budapest meeting.

The NATO defense ministers will also discuss security needs for next year’s presidential elections. NATO support for voter registration has already begun.

“It is very important to this alliance that the elections go forward on time and with maximum possible security,” said Appathurai.

Narcotics will be a focal point in the ministers’ discussions as NATO is trying to assume more responsibilities in this area. The Taliban have been funding their operations with money gained from the trafficking of heroin.

While the NATO-led counter-insurgency continues, the alliance’s attitude toward the Taliban seems to be changing.

Appathurai said Tuesday that NATO will support the Afghan government’s initiative to talk to the Taliban.

“Talking to the Taliban is not for NATO to take the lead on. It is not really for NATO to comment on. If the Afghan government chooses to engage and talk to the Taliban, that is there decision to take … If they choose to do this, NATO will support them in it,” he said.

But a senior U.S. official at NATO cautioned on Tuesday that there might be no gains in negotiations with hardcore Taliban elements.

The official, who asked not to be named, said the United States supports engagement with Taliban elements that are willing to lay down their arms and work for a stronger Afghan society.

“There is a hardcore of people who don’t share that vision, who are actively trying to bring down the Afghan government and re-impose a very harsh rule on the people of Afghanistan — a harsh rule that people there don’t want. I am not sure that there is a lot to gain from negotiating with that kind of group that has one aim, which is destroy Afghanistan,” said the official.

Apart from Afghanistan, the ministers will discuss ways of improving the deployability and sustainability of troops outside NATO member countries. They will also discuss funding for an initiative to update helicopters for expeditionary operations.