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Obama, NATO leaders cross Franco-German bridge

President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two dozen other NATO leaders walked across a bridge separating Germany and France in a moment of symbolic unity ahead of a summit likely to see disagreements about Afghanistan and the alliance's future.

world Updated: Apr 04, 2009 15:06 IST
Deborah Seward
Deborah Seward

President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two dozen other NATO leaders walked across a bridge separating Germany and France in a moment of symbolic unity on Saturday ahead of a summit likely to see disagreements about Afghanistan and the alliance's future. The European allies have pledged a marginal increase in forces keyed to preparations for Afghanistan's national elections in August.

The Obama administration has said it cannot shoulder the military burden alone, but it is now pinning its main hopes on more civilian contributions from Europe, particularly police trainers. NATO's ability to succeed in Afghanistan is seen as a crucial test of the power and relevance of a 60-year-old alliance founded to counterbalance the Soviet Union but now fighting a rising insurgency far beyond its borders.

Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have enthusiastically endorsed Obama's new Afghan strategy but European leaders and voters remain deeply skeptical about whether more troops can stabilize a country devastated by decades of war. At the summit's opening on Friday, Obama promised to repair damaged relations with Europe and asked for support of his new strategy, which has him adding 21,000 U.S. troops to the force of 38,000 struggling against Taliban advances alongside a like number of European, Canadian and non-NATO forces

"We totally endorse and support America's new strategy in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with Obama after they met. He said France would contribute with development assistance and more training for police, Sarkozy said. After her own talks with the president, Merkel said: "We have a great responsibility here. We want to carry our share of the responsibility militarily, in the area of civil reconstruction and in police training."

British officials traveling to the summit with Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters aboard his plane that Brown will offer to send more troops to Afghanistan but that depended upon other NATO members being prepared to send additional forces, Britain's Press Association reported. Officials said the number would likely be in the "mid to high hundreds." Britain has 8,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Spain said ahead of the summit that it will increase the number of soldiers it has in Afghanistan with a small contingent to help train Afghan army officers. Spain has 778 troops as part of the 55,000-strong NATO presence.

Belgium said it will add some 65 soldiers to the force of 500 it already has in Afghanistan, and will send two more F-16 jet fighters, bringing the total number it has sent to six. Belgium will also double its financial aid to an annual euro12 million ($14.5 million) over the next two years.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said securing new commitments from allies would neither begin nor end with the NATO meetings, noting that nations need more time to digest Obama's revamped war strategy. Obama's national security adviser, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, said Obama's new Afghanistan plan, which calls for widening the approach to include more civilian efforts and broadening the focus to include Pakistan, would inspire fresh involvement.

"I think there's a new mood," Jones said.

For Saturday's closing conference, Obama and the allies were turning to vexing issues facing NATO six decades after it was formed as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union and as a spur to the kind of European integration that the co-hosts of the summit, former World War II enemies France and Germany, exemplify. They also were welcoming two new members, Croatia and Albania.

Also on the agenda: applauding Sarkozy's decision to return France to full participation on NATO's military councils, after a 43-year absence.

Speaking in Baden-Baden, Obama made clear that his administration wants to press the allies to craft a new framework for the future, a new road map to define NATO's roles, missions and way of functioning.

Noting that there are "a whole host of hot spots" bedeviling the West beyond Afghanistan, Obama said, "We've got to figure out what is NATO's role in that."

The leaders are expected to issue a declaration Saturday to launch formally a project creating such a "strategic concept." It would be the first such revision of the alliance's purpose and function since 1999, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that propelled the United States into Afghanistan and a conflict that, almost eight years later, is worsening and growing more complex. Other topics of discussion included Russia, which strongly opposes further eastward expansion of NATO, and the prospect of accelerating arms control talks. The leaders were expected to endorse a return to normal relations with Russia, nine months after Moscow invaded Georgia.

The allies were expected to declare in a closing communique that they endorse a united way forward in Afghanistan, with more emphasis on nonmilitary aspects of the struggle.

Obama said upon his arrival in Strasbourg on Friday that Europe should not expect the United States to bear the combat burden alone. "This is a joint problem," Obama said. "And it requires a joint effort."

Obama was being joined at the summit Saturday by his special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. The NATO leaders also were discussing candidates to be the next NATO secretary-general, which appeared likely to be Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, despite opposition from Turkey. Fogh Rasmussen infuriated many Muslims by speaking out in favor of freedom of speech during an uproar over Danish publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006.

The current secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, is completing his term this summer. The post, as the top civilian officer of NATO, is always held by a non-American, with the senior NATO commander job always held by an American.

First Published: Apr 04, 2009 15:04 IST