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Europeans Reluctant to Follow Obama on Afghan Initiative

President Obama's first trip across the Atlantic has included visits to six countries. Obama, originally scheduled to return to Washington after two final days in Turkey, took a surprise detour to Baghdad to visit American troops serving in Iraq.

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 3, 2009

STRASBOURG, France, April 2 -- European leaders have prepared to host a spectacular summit here to mark the 60th anniversary of NATO, the bedrock military alliance that has bound the United States to the security of Europe since shortly after World War II.

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With President Obama in their midst, officials said, European presidents and prime ministers will walk side-by-side Saturday morning across a bridge spanning the French-German border while French fighter jets streak overhead. The made-for-television event, they explained, is designed to dramatize not only solidarity among the 26 NATO nations but also Europe's embrace of the new leadership in Washington after a rocky eight years with President George W. Bush.

"This summit will be held in a new diplomatic context, with the United States taking a clearly more collective approach than during the Bush era," said a senior adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "We have turned the page on Iraq."

But behind the display of revived transatlantic friendship, European leaders have proved reluctant to follow Obama in his first major foreign policy initiative, which in effect seeks to make Afghanistan NATO's main mission of the moment. With a few exceptions, European analysts said, the leaders are ready to heed the U.S. call for more military help in Afghanistan only to the extent necessary to stay friendly with the new administration.

"The Europeans want to come back from the summit and say, 'Look, we're still tight with the Americans,' " said Daniel Korski, an Afghanistan specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The Americans want to come back from the summit and say, 'Look, the Europeans are going to help with the new strategy in Afghanistan.' "

European officials said Obama is likely to come away from the summit Saturday with a broad endorsement of his idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic goal for NATO and support for his decision to devote more civilian as well as military resources to eliminating al-Qaeda havens there and in Pakistan. But they also said that summit pleasantries are unlikely to mask Europe's refusal to commit to major new troop deployments.

Europe's main new contribution for now, French officials said, will be a 300-member corps of paramilitary gendarmes to mentor Afghan policemen in the provinces. France, Italy, Spain and Portugal have expressed interest in participating, the officials said, but the project is still under discussion and, in any case, the force would be deployed only in areas considered pacified enough for NATO soldiers to turn the area over to Afghan authorities.

To some extent, Europe's hesitations reflect ambivalence about NATO's purpose since the Soviet threat ended and the former Yugoslavia ceased to be a war zone. The alliance's future mission -- and whether that mission should be global in reach -- has been under debate for several years, and the issue is likely to be touched on, but not resolved, in Strasbourg, officials said.

In the view of Obama's White House, global Islamist terrorism has already become the main security threat and thus should concern NATO nations even though Afghanistan is thousands of miles away. This analysis is shared, to varying degrees, in Western European capitals, but the U.S. conclusion that more troops are vital does not automatically follow.

"It is a central strategic issue," the senior Sarkozy adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We are in 100 percent agreement on that."

Britain has contributed 8,300 soldiers to NATO's International Security Assistance Force -- the largest European contingent. But that is still far fewer than the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, who make up nearly half the total.

The United States has also fielded more than 10,000 soldiers outside the NATO force, in a parallel deployment called Operation Enduring Freedom, and Obama has ordered more to ship out soon, bringing the U.S. total to about 55,000.


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