NATO defence ministers on Thursday pushed to bolster the alliance’s defences, as they weighed the calamitous end to their involvement in Afghanistan.
“We are undertaking a major adaptation to a more complex and competitive world,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after talks in Brussels.
The meeting was the first face-to-face talk by NATO defence ministers since the Taliban swept to power.
“Ministers endorsed a new overarching plan to defend our alliance in crisis and conflict, to make sure that we continue to have the right forces in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Western officials said the plan — kept confidential — was designed to allow the 30-nation alliance to counter simultaneous threats ranging from ground forces to cyber-attacks across geographical locations.
Ministers also agreed on new national “capability targets” designed to bolster military readiness and signed up to a 1-billion- euro ($1.2-billion) fund to help startups working on cutting-edge technologies.
“We have agreed to deliver more forces with higher readiness, and we have agreed to have more forces which are heavier and with more high-end capabilities and technologically advanced,” Stoltenberg said.
NATO has ramped up its defences in Europe against the threat from Russia since the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and is increasingly facing up to the challenge posed by China.
– Afghanistan ‘lessons‘ –
But the thrust to modernise the alliance risked being overshadowed by the fallout from the disastrous end to its involvement in Afghanistan.
The alliance is conducting a review of “lessons learnt” from its two-decade deployment in Afghanistan after criticism among some allies of the US handling of the decision to pull out.
Stoltenberg insisted that allies must remain united despite disagreements over Afghanistan.
“The crisis in Afghanistan does not change the need for Europe and North America to stand together in NATO,” he said.
“In the face of growing global challenges, our unity and strength are what keeps us secure.”
Stoltenberg said the alliance members would look to keep up pressure on the Taliban through diplomatic and financial “leverage” and had the capabilities to strike any emerging terror threats “from distance”.
The debacle in Afghanistan has fuelled calls for EU to develop its own military capabilities, with France leading the push for more “autonomy”.
But that has sparked concern among other European NATO allies wary of distancing themselves from the US, which they see as the major bulwark against Russia.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, was to join the NATO defence ministers Friday for talks on enhancing cooperation.
Stoltenberg said he “welcomed EU efforts on defence when it’s about, for instance, increasing readiness of forces and providing new capabilities”.
But he warned against efforts that could divert already stretched military resources away from the alliance.
“We should have no competition but actually make sure that what the EU does is complementary to NATO efforts,” he said.