NATO is hastening preparations to create elite rapid response units as the alliance expands its reach to include peacekeeping in Afghanistan and, perhaps, Iraq, the top allied commander in Europe said today.
US General James Jones said NATO’s military would be ready and able to handle a mission in post-war Iraq.
However, the supreme allied commander in Europe stressed he had received no orders yet from the civilian leadership to prepare for a mission there.
“To date, I have received no guidance and no instructions to do any planning whatsoever,” Jones said. “If it did come, we’d be prepared.”
Although the 19 NATO nations have been deeply divided by the Iraq crisis, they are considering US proposals for alliance troops to help stabilise the country after the war.
France, which led opposition within NATO to the conflict, has been most wary about extending the alliance’s reach beyond its traditional European theatre. Last week, however, Paris signalled a change of heart by dropping objections to NATO taking command of the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
Jones said that decision was highly significant for NATO’s future.
“The fact we are doing this sends a signal about what the leadership thinks about NATO and what we can do in the 21st century,” he said.
“It shows that NATO wants to have an out-of-area capability, not just in a regional sense, but in a global sense.”
Crucial to giving the alliance global clout are plans, approved last year, to overhaul NATO’s military structures to focus on more flexible and quickly mobile units.
Speaking at NATO’s military headquarters at Casteau in southern Belgium, Jones said first elements of a NATO rapid response force should be operational by October, comprising about 2,000 elite land, sea and air personnel under a single command.
The force would be able to deploy within days to tackle crises worldwide.
Although initially small, Jones said the force would be large enough to show allied governments the benefits of such units.
“The NATO response force is the vehicle for the transformation of NATO for the future,” Jones said. “That example will galvanise the imagination.”
He added that planners drawing up the military reform would draw lessons from the success of British and American forces in Iraq in using overwhelming air power and swiftly outflanking defences.
Despite the continued presence of 40,000 NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the planned deployment to Afghanistan in the next few months, Jones said the alliance would not be over-stretched by an operation in Iraq.