Nato leaders commit to Afghanistan for long haul

Nato pledged on Wednesday to stay the course to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan at a summit where nations offered guarded concessions to improve the mobility of allied forces battling Taliban insurgents.

Alliance leaders also reversed policy on Serbia and Bosnia by offering them a first step towards Nato membership, despite concerns over war criminals still at large, and said other Balkan nations could expect entry invitations in 2008.

”We are committed to an enduring role to support the Afghan authorities, in cooperation with other international actors,” the 26 leaders of the military alliance declared in a joint statement after talks in the Latvian capital, Riga.

”It is winnable, it is being won, but not yet won,” said Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the most dangerous ground combat in the alliance’s 57-year history.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose troops, with Canadian and Dutch soldiers, are bearing the brunt of daily violence in southern Afghanistan, said all Nato leaders agreed that Nato’s credibility ”was on the line” over Afghanistan.

United States President George Bush said success in Afghanistan could come only if allies accepted ”difficult assignments” after alliance commanders complained the mission has been hobbled by limits many nations set on how their forces are deployed.

Blair’s official spokesperson said Bulgaria, Spain and Nato aspirant Macedonia had offered more forces and De Hoop Scheffer said countries had pledged to lift or ease limits that would make 26 000 of the 32 000-strong Nato peace force more mobile.

But many major nations, including France, Germany and Italy, said their contingents could only be moved to Afghanistan’s more perilous regions in emergencies.

”We all agree that we help each other in case of emergency,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who resisted pressure on Germany to deploy outside its base in the relatively calm north.

French officials said France could ”on a case-by-case basis” send troops outside their zone around the capital Kabul, while Spain promised the use of its helicopters — but not for combat. — Reuters

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