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Sept. 11 Changing NATO's Scope

Defense: Alliance shifts focus to terrorism and arms control, moving beyond member regions.

September 24, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Its core mission altered by the Sept. 11 attacks, NATO is refocusing itself on combating terrorists and controlling weapons of mass destruction, U.S. officials said Monday, tasks that might put the alliance in position for a role in an American-led war on Iraq.

The organization's new focus is one of the reasons Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to propose to the alliance today that it create a rapid-response force of as many as 20,000 soldiers. The force would be capable of striking on 30 days' notice well outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's traditional areas of North America and Europe.

"NATO has been transformed in its thinking about its role, its structure, its mission because of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001," said a senior NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rumsfeld also is discussing the proposal in private talks with member states. If NATO ministers back it, the issue would come up for a vote at a November NATO summit in Prague, the Czech capital.

"There is a broad recognition now in the alliance--but there was not on Sept. 10, 2001--that the combination of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is the single greatest threat, not just to the United States but to every member of the alliance," the senior NATO official said Monday. "And we assume the great majority of threats in the future to NATO countries will not come from within Europe but from outside Europe. Therefore we need the proposal, the capability that Secretary Rumsfeld will be proposing tomorrow."

Rumsfeld met with Poland's president, prime minister and defense minister Monday and is expected to meet with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and Turkish and Italian defense officials before returning to Washington on Wednesday.

NATO's proposed new mission would create an organization capable of taking on the type of threats that President Bush says are posed by Iraq. Asked about NATO's potential involvement in a war on Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him to Warsaw on Sunday, "It hasn't crossed my mind. We've not proposed it."

But U.S. policymakers said they would seek support from NATO members in the event of a war, either formally or through contributions from NATO members acting outside the organization.

"Whatever we decide to do, whatever the international community decides to do, I think we would welcome the support, the political support of our friends and allies in NATO," said a senior U.S. defense official. "I think that's something we're here to talk about."

One problem with including NATO in a war on Iraq or the Bush administration's pursuit of terrorists is that it would change the organization's mission of defending its member nations in their own region.

Although NATO as an organization is not involved in Afghanistan, 18 of its 19 members have played a role. The only nation not participating, Iceland, joined NATO for its protective military umbrella because Iceland has no military.

NATO is not formally coordinating the international military mission in Afghanistan partly because of member countries' concerns that the operation went beyond alliance rules and territory.

Those limits would end under proposals that would extend the pact outside its traditional area of operations, revamp its command structure and reorient it to focus on terrorism and taboo weapons.

American strategists are pressing for a new, streamlined NATO structure that would transform the alliance from an organization designed to battle a Soviet invasion of Europe to one capable of crossing the globe to rescue hostages or fighting wars in remote regions, said the U.S. defense official.

Such changes would mirror Rumsfeld's ongoing transformation of Pentagon military programs, which is focused on high-tech warfare and designed to get soldiers to battle more quickly and with better coordination.

"Threats have changed, and now it's necessary to look at how the command structure needs to change to continue to make sure that it is agile, that it can deploy, that it can support the kinds of operations that are more likely in the 21st century--particularly, that it can do so in a timely way," the defense official said.

NATO leaders are planning to consider ways to enhance their capabilities for precision bombing, communications, chemical and biological weapons defenses and transportation of soldiers and equipment.

Robertson has urged European nations to contribute more and coordinate their purchases of military equipment to provide for a more balanced arsenal for the organization as a whole. France, Britain and Norway have each agreed to spend more.

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