COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – America's European allies are expected to offer this week to play a bigger peacekeeping role in Bosnia (search) and Afghanistan, helping U.S. forces stretched by the occupation of Iraq and their fight against Al Qaeda.
European nations firmed up plans for both operations at talks ahead of a two-day meeting of NATO (search) defense ministers, which opens Wednesday in this Rocky Mountain city.
NATO also has already asked the United Nations for permission to expand its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan (search) and move troops beyond the capital, Kabul, into other Afghan cities.
"My top priority is that we get Afghanistan right, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson told reporters Tuesday. "It's a big responsibility."
NATO currently runs a force of 5,000 — mostly German and Canadian — troops maintaining order and supporting the Afghan authorities in Kabul. The mission is separate from the larger U.S.-led combat mission fighting remnants of Al Qaeda and the ousted Taliban regime in the countryside.
Plans under consideration would send more NATO-led troops — possibly up to several thousand — out to other Afghan cities to support civilian reconstruction teams and help extend the authority of the Afghan government in areas currently under control of local warlords.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Washington he supported a wider role for the Kabul force, which operates under a U.N. mandate.
"We've always favored expansion outside Kabul," he said.
However, Robertson has acknowledged that a shortage of properly trained and equipped European troops could limit the scope.
On Bosnia, European Union defense ministers meeting Saturday in Rome said the EU was willing to take over running the force in the middle of next year, replacing NATO forces there since 1995.
The United States has 1,500 troops in Bosnia as part of the NATO-led force of almost 13,000. European officials said the force will probably be cut to 6,000 to 8,000, reflecting an improved security situation.
However, some U.S. officials have expressed reservations about an early hand-over of the NATO mission to EU leadership, fearing the EU's fledgling defense arm may be overwhelmed. Rumsfeld declined to say if the United States would support handing the mission over to the EU, saying only that "it's something the U.S. government is discussing."
The gathering of defense ministers kicks off Wednesday at Schriever Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs with a planning exercise using a rapid response force that the 19-member alliance is building. The idea is to test the group's ability to react to newer, more unpredictable threats.