Thursday, 19 February 2009

NATO Defence Ministers Meet

NATO Defence Ministers meet today in the first of two informal Ministerials to prepare the ground for the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit in April. Foreign Ministers will meet in March to finalize plans for the Summit.

NATO Spokesman James Appathurai gave a background briefing on the meeting. Afghanistan, as might be expected, will feature large in discussions. President Obama has been saying, since before his election, that the US will do more there in return for more from its Allies. This was a message that Vice-President Joe Biden reinforced last week at Munich.

The US has announced that it is sending an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, and the NATO meeting will discuss how many other Allied troops can be committed, and whether nations such as Germany are ready to lift the caveats on the use of troops that prevent them (amongst other nations) participating in combat missions in the south of the country. This has received at best a lukewarm reception from most Allies.

President Obama is pinning his hopes on 'victory' in Afghanistan and the Alliance would now seem to to be pinning its future credibility as a military force on a successful outcome. The trouble is that there is little chance of a straightforward military victory that would allow NATO to declare that it has won, and leave the country. NATO forces control little territory outside Kabul and major regional centres. The Karzai government is weak, and in almost open conflict with the foreign powers that sustain it. it is incumbent on those who believe that NATO can be a 'global security provider' to show that they can resolve the military and political situations in Afghanistan, leave the country relatively peaceful, in order to preserve NATO credibility. A tall order indeed.

Expectations for the Summit have been steadily downgraded over the past months. It seems that this will be, like Bucharest and Riga, a primarily ceremonial affair focused on 60 years of peace in Europe. The Allies will begin a discussion about the revision of the Alliance Strategic Concept, but it is clear that no serious work will be done in Strasbourg. One reason for this is that, with a new US administration, there simply hasn't been time for those in Washington to review policy and prepare a new initiative. Strasbourg-Kehl will see the adoption of a Declaration on Alliance Security, which will be worked on by Defence Ministers this week. Some sources say this will be the basis for the Strategic Concept revision.

Turkish officials told journalists that defence planning, including nuclear planning, would also be discussed. No other sources were prepared to discuss this.

Other topics for discussion will include Kosovo, the NATO Response Force, and missile defences in Eastern Europe. One particular irritant is a border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia concerning Slovenian access to the Adriatic. Slovenia has already stalled EU accession negotiations over this, and is threatening not to hold the necessary referendum to ratify Croatian accession to NATO, which would cast another dark shadow over the April Summit. NATO relations with Georgia and the Ukraine will also be on the agenda, but it seems that further enlargement is being soft-pedalled for the moment. This will be an interesting meeting.

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