Thu Jan 25, 2007 12:52 PM ET
By Mark John
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO chiefs, meeting on Friday, will gird the alliance for a rough ride ahead, with the threat of a new Taliban offensive in Afghanistan and ethnic tensions in Kosovo sparked by a U.N. ruling on its independence claim.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called the meeting of alliance foreign ministers, is due to announce billions of dollars more U.S. aid for Afghanistan after a policy review to put more emphasis on the need for fast reconstruction.
The alliance also wants to ensure its peacekeepers are not caught napping by any violence in the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, as they were in March 2004 when 19 people died as ethnic Albanian mobs burned U.N. vehicles and Serb homes.
"We are heading into a spring period that could be very hot indeed," said one NATO diplomat.
NATO's credibility is pegged on the success of its two largest operations, with the 32,000-strong Afghan mission proving to be the most hazardous in its 58-year-old history.
There has been a total of 357 NATO and U.S.-led coalition deaths in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
The Pentagon announced on Thursday more than 3,000 troops will stay on longer than planned to boost NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan ahead of an expected spring offensive by Taliban militants.
"We have to ensure the only spring offensive comes from NATO and the Afghans," said one NATO diplomat.
Alliance officials insist that despite taking heavy casualties last year, they are broadly satisfied with military progress. But they acknowledge reconstruction work must be speeded up to help many Afghans living in dire conditions.
U.S. officials say the Bush administration could seek up to $6 billion in a supplemental budget request to Congress that would cover a stepped-up effort to train the Afghan military and police as well as improve infrastructure. The Washington Post reported on Thursday the figure could be as much as $8 billion.
"We are going to announce significant contributions to this effort tomorrow...and we are looking for others to step up their effort with us -- stepping up across the board," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher told reporters in Brussels on the eve of the meeting.
But little is seen emerging from other allies at Friday's meeting, with European nations pointing to the billions of euros of aid they have already pledged to the country since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001.
"No one else is expecting to offer anything substantial," said one senior NATO diplomat. "There is no lack of money, it's just a question of how you spend it," he added.
On Kosovo, foreign ministers will hold a first discussion on a U.N. plan seen granting the province limited independence from Serbia after U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari unveils details of his recommendations at a separate meeting in Vienna.
"We have got to make sure we are ready -- and we are ready -- for repercussions such as a mass Serb exodus out of Kosovo," said one diplomat of the risk that the Serb minority there will decide to flee the province.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has also signaled that the alliance would be ready to take on the training of a Kosovo security force if Ahtisaari makes such a proposal and the Kosovars accept.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Andrew Gray in Washington)