POIANA BRASOV, Romania – The United States is pressing NATO (search) to take over the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan (search), possibly as early as 2005, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance said Tuesday.
NATO currently commands the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and it has set up five Provincial Reconstruction Teams in northern Afghanistan. Its troops do not conduct combat missions as U.S. forces do.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance, told American reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) on Tuesday that the aim of the United States is to combine the U.S. and NATO missions under an alliance commander.
"There will be a lot of discussion about that tomorrow, but no decisions," Burns said, referring to Wednesday's NATO defense ministers meeting.
"It's a very complicated issue, how you put these two very different military missions together," Burns said. "But there will be a number of people who will support — we will certainly support — a direction to the military leaders of the alliance to go and look at this question and decide how we can best do that — give us a sense of how you put these two missions together."
Burns said he expects the alliance's military leaders to present answers at a planned February meeting of defense ministers in Nice, France.
He said integration of the forces could happen by 2005 or 2006.
The ambassador also said the United States is pressing NATO's newer members who once were part of the Soviet bloc, like Romania, to donate older Soviet-era military equipment that is urgently needed to equip Iraqi forces.
In the shorter term, the United States is pushing its NATO allies to accelerate the deployment of extra peacekeepers to Afghanistan.
Ahead of two days of talks beginning Wednesday, U.S. officials said they were seeking commitments that the alliance would expand its peacekeeping operation into western Afghanistan, which would free up U.S. troops to hunt Taliban and al-Qaida remnants hiding out in the south and east.
"NATO is behind. We should have been in the west by now, and we're not," Burns told reporters earlier at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. "NATO ... needs to move faster, with a greater degree of commitment and political will."
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.
Despite that temporary deployment, the alliance is slipping behind with plans to expand its longer-term peacekeeping operation into the troubled western provinces from its bases in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and five northern cities.
On Iraq, NATO envoys 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.
About 40 NATO trainers have been in Baghdad since August, but U.S. officials said last week that the process was moving too slowly to have an impact before elections scheduled in Iraq early next year.
The alliance is playing only a small role in Iraq due to the reluctance of France, Germany and other member nations who opposed the war. Still, most of the 26 allies have troops in Iraq supporting the U.S.-led force.