By PAUL AMES
The Associated Press
Monday, November 27, 2006; 6:20 AM
RIGA, Latvia -- One issue will dominate this week's NATO summit _ Afghanistan.
The 26 presidents and prime ministers all know that the future of their alliance is playing out in the deserts of Kandahar and mountains of Uruzgan rather than in their conference hall on the Baltic Sea.
The rise in Taliban violence since NATO's 32,800-strong force moved into those southern provinces and the resultant casualties among civilians and Western soldiers has called into question the strategy behind NATO's "stabilization" force in Afghanistan.
Before traveling to Europe for the summit, President Bush spoke on the phone with his Afghan counterpart. "President Bush assured President Hamid Karzai that the United States of America will reiterate its commitment at the NATO summit to the strengthening of security and reconstruction in Afghanistan," said a statement from Karzai's office in Kabul.
The dangers to the NATO force were underscored by attacks in the run-up to the summit that ended a period of relative calm. Two Canadian soldiers serving with the NATO force were reported slain by a suicide car bomber Monday. A day earlier, a suicide bomber killed 15 Afghans in a restaurant.
The summit Tuesday and Wednesday in Latvia's capital, Riga, will be Bush's first meeting with European allies since he was chastened by Democrat success in the midterm elections and bid farewell to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Allied leaders will be looking for any change in emphasis from the Bush administration following Rumsfeld's resignation. But on Afghanistan, the message is likely to be a reaffirmation of the alliance's determination to stay the course.
"I don't believe there is an alternative but to fight this and to fight it for as long as it takes," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told troops in southern Afghanistan last week.
Leaders will talk up battlefield successes against the Taliban in recent months and point to statistics showing health care and education improvements in Afghanistan as illustrating the success of their mission.
They will stress the need to follow up military advances quickly with development aid to win over hearts and minds. And they will pledge to do more through the United Nations and the European Union to provide civilian support to the Afghan government, from building roads and schools to training the police and tackling the narcotics trade.
"A military mission alone will not succeed," U.S. Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland said.
"We must have security married to good governance and development, and that means the EU, U.N. and NATO working in harmony with Afghans," she wrote on NATO's Web site last week.
Although all 26 nations have troops serving with the mission, those in the southern front lines _ mainly Canada, Britain, the United States and the Netherlands _ are irked that others _ primarily Germany, Italy, France and Spain _ have restrictions limiting their troops to the relatively peaceful north and west.
"Putting caveats on operations means putting caveats on NATO's future," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Brussels before the summit. "At Riga, I will convey this message to our heads of state and government, loud and clear."
He may get some success. Poland says the 1,100 troops it is sending to Afghanistan in the new year can be used around the country. Norway and Portugal have quick-response units based in the north that can be sent wherever commanders think best.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, de Hoop Scheffer said he was confident all leaders would agree that their troops are able to rush to the aid of allies in trouble anywhere in Afghanistan.
Several non-NATO nations are supporting the Afghan mission, including Australia and New Zealand. Some in the alliance want to bring those countries, along with Japan and South Korea, into a "global partnership" to boost political and military cooperation.
Washington sees that idea as a priority in Riga. The United States also wants to see more spending by European allies to modernize NATO's military, build up the alliance's role as a political forum and keep the door open for nations in the Balkans who want to join NATO in 2008, and others in the former Soviet Union seeking membership further down the road.
However, the U.S. faces opposition from at least one European ally.
"To seek to involve the alliance in nonmilitary missions, ad hoc partnerships, technological ventures or an insufficiently prepared enlargement could only distort its purpose," French President Jacques Chirac told a meeting with his country's ambassadors based around the world in August.
Although both sides are keen to lay to rest the ghosts of their Iraq war disputes, France and the United States hold fundamentally different views of NATO's role. Paris is wary of what it sees as Washington's attempts to use NATO to expand its influence at the expense of a more independent EU.
Many blame continued tension between France and United States for the relatively limited ambition of the Riga agenda and expect more for the next summit in 2008, when there'll probably be a new president in Paris, or the one after in 2009, when there will certainly be a new president in Washington.