BRUSSELS, Belgium – NATO defense ministers expressed confidence Thursday that their beefed-up mission in Afghanistan can stem the surge in violence by supporters of the deposed Taliban regime.
NATO is increasing its force in Afghanistan from 9,700 to 16,000, with an expansion into the volatile southern region of the country due to be completed by late July. The alliance hopes to take on eastern Afghanistan by November, completing its expansion across the country and increasing its total numbers to 21,000.
"No one should doubt NATO's commitment to this mission, nor our capacity to carry it out," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliance's secretary general.
The deployment of more troops into the former Taliban strongholds in the south has been met by a wave of attacks, including homicide bombings against international forces and their Afghan allies.
Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said NATO had a duty to help stabilize Afghanistan and would be expanding to the whole country its system of combined security and support for reconstruction.
"I am convinced that we will get agreement today to extend this approach to all of Afghanistan," Jung told reporters as he arrived Thursday for the day-long talks, which will be joined for the first time by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
In a report this week, the London-based security think-tank, the Senlis Group, said that parts of the south were slipping into open warfare, with support for Taliban control reviving as local people grow disillusioned with poverty made worse by Afghan government efforts to eradicate opium production.
NATO officials, however, have characterized the violence as a last gasp effort by the insurgents before the peacekeeping force's full deployment. They expressed confidence that the unrest will subside with the increase in troops and tactics that mix reaching out to the local population and aggressively fighting insurgents.
"We will succeed, because it's important for the Afghan people and we think important for the world," said Dutch Defense Minister Henk Kamp, whose country is a major troop contributor to the force in southern Afghanistan.
The NATO talks also focused on increasing assistance to African peacekeepers in Sudan. The ministers are expected to restate a commitment to maintain NATO's 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Kosovo during delicate talks on the territory's postwar status.
Also on the agenda is a proposal for NATO to set up an elite military academy in Jordan as part of a drive to improve cooperation with Israel and friendly Arab nations.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was expected to propose increased cooperation among special forces of the 26 NATO nations and a plan to pool resources for the purchase of large transport planes — a major gap in the arsenals of most European allies.
He was also expected to confirm a U.S. offer to take command of the NATO force in Afghanistan through 2007. The offer is viewed as a signal of Washington's commitment to Afghanistan even as it hopes to reduce the level of U.S. troops there.
The Pentagon said the United States has at least 21,000 troops in Afghanistan, but there has been talk of a cut of up to 20 percent. Many of those that remain will be incorporated into the NATO force as it moves south and east. However, the U.S. will also maintain a combat force independent of NATO to hunt down Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Ministers were expected to approve new guidelines for military planners, asking them to focus on lighter, more mobile forces able to run as many as six simultaneous missions of up to 30,000 troops, along with two major operations involving more than 60,000.