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NATO's 'embarrassing' Afghan gaps

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KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson will press alliance nations next week to fill "embarrassing" gaps in resources available to the 5,700-strong peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, diplomats said on Wednesday.

They said the so-far fruitless search for allies willing to provide helicopters and intelligence officers in Kabul was starting to undermine the credibility of NATO's ambition to expand its mission beyond the capital.

"We still haven't got the faintest idea how we will meet the shortfalls," said one diplomat. "There's an embarrassment factor coming in now."

Officials said Robertson would press defense ministers of the 19 nations meeting in Brussels on December 1-2 to add about 10 helicopters to the three available to the Kabul-based International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"He's going to have the defense ministers here in a closed space for a couple of days and he will go the whole nine yards," said one. "He knows the countries that have the capabilities and he will be persuading them that those capabilities should be in Afghanistan and hangars on their national territory."

Diplomats say Belgium withdrew an offer of more helicopters once it realized the cost and both Turkey and Greece declined to send any, with Athens citing preparations for its 2004 Olympics.

NATO took command of ISAF in August. Its first deployment of troops outside Europe or North America, the mission was held up as evidence that the Cold War alliance had genuinely transformed itself for new and global security threats.

It quickly set its sights on expanding ISAF's influence beyond Kabul to cities where Taliban militia are back on the offensive and warlords are thriving on a resurgent opium trade, and it secured a wider mandate from the United Nations to do so.

The ultimate plan is to take under ISAF's wing a constellation of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), groups of soldiers carrying out small reconstruction projects or providing security for aid work to be carried out.

But -- reflecting the lag in military preparedness for a task which may require as many as 3,000 additional soldiers and expensive equipment -- defense ministers meeting in Brussels next week will approve only a modest expansion of the mission.

They will agree to backing for a German-led PRT in the northern city of Kunduz and temporary deployments of troops outside Kabul to oversee elections and a disarmament programme.

A senior NATO official said the alliance's military authorities would submit proposals for further expansion before Christmas and an operational plan should be ready early in 2004.

"I wouldn't say that we are moving slowly," he said. "I mean, for an organization like that it's quite a speed."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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