NATO seeks Afghan accord as it charts new role
A general view taken prior to the NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting held at the organisation's headquarters in Brussels, on December 3, 2013
The immediate issue is NATO's planned training and advisory mission in Afghanistan after it ends its biggest ever combat operation there next year, clearing the decks for leaders to set a new course for the alliance at a summit in late 2014.
The problem, however, is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement required by Washington to set the legal and operational framework for the training force of up to 12,000 troops, likely to be mostly American.
Washington and NATO have made clear that without an accord, there is "no post-2014 mission," in which case both military and development aid could be at risk.
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen made the point again on his arrival for the two-day meeting Tuesday, stressing the need for Karzai to sign the agreement and soon.
"It is clear that if there is no signature ... there can be no deployment and the planned assistance will be put at risk," Rasmussen said.
In 2011, the US government took the 'zero option' of complete withdrawal from Iraq when it could not get a troop status deal.
"At the end of the day, it is their decision," Rasmussen said, adding that he was concerned about the possible impact on Afghan security.
"I hope the BSA will be signed," he said.
Diplomats say the military and political realities now allow only limited time for the post-2014 Afghan mission to be finalised.
"You cannot wait until mid-2014 and expect the United States to (then) write a big cheque," one senior NATO diplomat said, adding: "This has been made very clear."
NATO officials put annual aid for the Afghan armed forces at $4.1 billion -- of which Kabul at best could only raise $500 million -- and $4.0 billion for development.
Karzai on Sunday accused Washington of halting essential supplies to some army and police units in an effort to force him to sign, a charge rejected by ISAF in Afghanistan.
Officials hope that if the Afghan impasse can be resolved, then NATO can focus on the leaders' summit in Britain next year which is meant to set down future priorities for an alliance formed in the East-West stand-off of the Cold War.
A key issue is how to build on NATO's active military role since the early 1990s, from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Libya, and safeguard gains in inter-operability and capability at a time when defence budgets are under strain.
The aim is a NATO which remains relevant and effective in a changing world where the challenges are as much military as political and economic, threatening to boil over into conflict and social upheaval.
"We have got to ensure that we sustain NATO's military edge," a senior US official said.
"In the context of extreme budgetary constraints ... it is incumbent on us all to do more with (the money) that we have."
The 28 allies, plus NATO's partners and sometimes adversaries such as Russia, will also review issues such as how to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
Missile defence, a hugely sensitive issue for Moscow, is on the agenda given US and European concerns of a threat from Iran despite the recent signing of an initial deal on its contested nuclear programme.
Relations with Ukraine and Georgia provide another difficult issue for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry as NATO seeks to maintain and boost ties with former Soviet states.
Continued and growing protests in Ukraine after the government ditched a planned association accord with the EU are likely to test both sides.
Following the NATO meeting, Kerry will travel to Moldova which did sign up with Brussels last week despite intense Russian pressure not to.
"We are making this brief stop to demonstrate US support for the important choice that Moldova made," the US official said.
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