By John D. Banusiewicz
PORTOROZ, Slovenia, Sept. 28, 2006 – Some 12,000 U.S. troops in 14 eastern provinces of Afghanistan will come under NATO control in the near future following a decision today by the alliance's defense ministers meeting here. The transfer of authority from the coalition to NATO's International Security Assistance Force will take place "very soon, indeed," Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at a news conference.
In a later news conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the transfer "a bold step forward for this alliance."
An official NATO statement said the decision will be implemented when U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's top operational commander, issues an activation order. "This is expected in the next few days," the statement said.
Officials said ISAF having operational control over forces in all regions of Afghanistan will give commanders the flexibility they need to employ the force's capabilities whenever and wherever they're needed most. Officials said the decision to proceed with Phase 4 was made in consultation with non-NATO countries that provide troops to the mission.
The U.S. will remain the largest troop contributor to the overall security mission in Afghanistan, DoD officials said.
An important issue affecting NATO's ability to succeed in Afghanistan is the need for countries contributing forces to ease or eliminate restrictions, known as "caveats," on how and where their forces may be used, Scheffer said. He quoted Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski as telling his colleagues, "Giving forces without caveats is giving twice." Poland's ISAF forces are operating without caveats.
Rumsfeld said it's important that ISAF forces operate under "as few caveats as possible."
"It is very difficult for a commander managing the forces from ... 35 or 40 different countries -- NATO nations as well as non-NATO nations -- when he is not able to move forces around and to have them go where they're needed, when they're needed to do the things that needed to be done," he said.
Rumsfeld added that he believes some progress on the issue was made here today.
With the transfer of authority, NATO will take command of 12 additional provincial reconstruction teams, bringing the total number of NATO-led PRTs to 25. The number of troops under NATO command will increase from the current 20,000 to more than 30,000. Most of these forces are already in place in Afghanistan, the statement said.
"Today's decision to expand the mission to the whole country, coupled with substantial offers to equip the Afghan army, are more examples of the progress we are making to help Afghanistan build a better future," Scheffer said.
The secretary-general said the defense ministers in today's meeting showed determination in dealing with the Afghanistan mission, a mission the secretary-general called "NATO's No. 1 priority."
"What I saw around the table is a lot of resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan, a lot of confirmation that this is a long-term commitment from NATO, and also the notion that things are going well in Afghanistan," Scheffer said. "Let's not be gloomy when we discuss Afghanistan."
He noted that 3,000 kilometers of new roads have been built there, that 6 million children are going to school, and that reconstruction is going on in many places throughout the country. He also cited "many commitments" among NATO countries to train and equip the Afghan National Army.
"NATO, like we do in Iraq, is going to be a sort of clearing house," he explained, "and many ministers around the table said they are ready and they are willing to train and equip the Afghan National Army."
Scheffer emphasized that going ahead with Phase 4 does not mean it's any less important for the alliance to continue addressing its needs in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where Jones recently said more troops and equipment are needed. NATO sources said five countries -- reportedly Romania, Canada, Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic -- today offered to provide additional forces for the effort in the south.
"If you are in an alliance based on solidarity, you have to deliver," Scheffer said. "And to deliver is a question of will, in the last instance. It's not a question of process or structure or organization."