NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Noordwijk

On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, defense ministers from NATO countries gathered in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands, to talk about a number of critical issues facing the alliance. As Frida Ghitis reports, top on the agenda was Afghanistan. Ghitis writes that European member countries are decidedly ambivalent about remaining there, much less committing more troops:

Hosting the Noordwijk meeting, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop made a case to his European colleagues that sounded very much like the “Freedom isn’t free” bumper stickers seen on some cars on American roads. The way van Middelkoop put it, “There is no free ride to peace and security.” The Netherlands urged NATO members to contribute troops to the Dutch-led mission in southern Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. Chastising member nations whose troops are working in safe zones, van Middelkoop said “Fair risk and burden sharing has to be a leading principle for NATO.” Without more help in Uruzgan, the Netherlands has warned that its commitment to Afghanistan could come to an end in August 2008.

The government here sounds determined to stay, but public opposition could force their hand, particularly if the Dutch feel they have been left carrying an unfair share of the burden in terms of treasury and life. The United States, with the largest contingent in Afghanistan — 15,000 troops — also pressured NATO members to up their participation. “What we need now,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “are actions, deeds and a sense of urgency and commitment.”

Faced with the threat of a Dutch and later a Canadian withdrawal, the French passionately urged the countries on the front lines of the battle — Canada, the U.K., the U.S. and the Netherlands — not to pull back from their objectives. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin said they must maintain their troop levels, but then he said France would not send more combat forces to help. Instead, he offered some 50 French training personnel to help prepare Afghan forces. French troops, numbering about 1000, are based in the comparatively peaceful capital of Kabul.

Read Ghitis’ entire article to find out the most important things that happened at the defense ministers meeting. If you want the rather sunnier official version, on the other hand, you can watch this official NATO video summary: