BRUSSELS -- NATO has quietly begun supporting the multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, in the alliance's first mission outside Europe and North America and a possible precursor to engagements in other trouble spots far from its home turf, NATO officials and diplomats said.
NATO so far has provided help in military planning to German and Dutch contingents that are part of the International Security Assistance Force. The two units are scheduled to take over command of the peacekeeping force patrolling Kabul in February. After that, NATO intends to expand its aid to communications, logistics and intelligence gathering and assessment, officials and diplomats said.
The German-Dutch command is scheduled to last six months. Some NATO members are pushing for the alliance to take over command of the force at that point. "If it happens, it will be very significant," a NATO official said.
Diplomats and NATO officials stressed that there is no consensus among the 19 NATO countries for such a step. At least one country, France, is said to oppose any direct NATO role in Afghanistan.
NATO's military consists largely of the national armed forces of the member countries. But some military assets, such as surveillance planes, command centers, planning staffs and communications networks, are maintained jointly. While many NATO members have independently sent military units to Afghanistan, the aid to the peacekeeping forces marks the first role there by the alliance as an organization.
"The Rubicon has been crossed, because NATO has been doing critical bits of the planning with Germany and the Netherlands," NATO Secretary General George Robertson said in an interview on his plane this week while returning from a one-day visit to Moscow. "The biggest obstacle has been overcome, which was the decision to go at all."
The move comes less than a month after NATO heads of government meeting in Prague endorsed a new mission for the alliance, stating that it could no longer limit itself to its traditional area of operations and must meet new challenges and threats wherever they emerge.
The involvement in Afghanistan is a sharp reversal from a year ago, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when NATO for the first time invoked its Article 5 mutual defense clause and offered to assist the United States -- only to see that offer largely rebuffed by Washington, which drew support from just a few key allies.
Since then, in an attempt to keep the alliance relevant to the United States, Robertson has led an effort to retool the organization, which was created to counter Soviet forces in Europe during the Cold War.
Robertson said that NATO is examining taking command of the peacekeepers in Afghanistan chiefly to avoid the disruption of the current system, in which command turns over every six months.
For this initial phase, NATO involvement will be largely behind the scenes, with the Germans and Dutch in control. "There won't be any NATO flag or anything," said an alliance official, adding that "some countries are a bit nervous about it."
"This will be the first NATO operation out of area, but there will be no NATO footprint in Afghanistan," said a spokesman for the German mission to NATO. "It will be done very discreetly from Brussels."
A Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman in The Hague said NATO's involvement came about when the two countries preparing to take over the Kabul force requested military planning help. Also, he said, the Dutch army corps being dispatched to Kabul from a base in Germany is already integrated into the NATO structure.
In Moscow this week, Robertson briefed the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, on NATO's plans, alliance officials said. The Russians voiced no objections, said a NATO official who spoke to reporters after the meeting. Ivanov, however, told Robertson he thought the best option was to turn the mission over to Afghan police and soldiers, the official said. Robertson responded that the international force was, at the moment, the best guarantor of stability in the country, the official said.